Rules of Sailing

According to Coast Guard figures, over half of all accidents on the water are due to collisions. This seems a lot given the almost unlimited amount of available space, but the area that each ship can occupy is steadily decreased when factors such as course, wind direction and strength are considered. This is compounded by the fact that, in racing, the two boats may easily be aiming for the same point on the water.

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (set out by the Royal Yachting Association) and the United States Inland Rules are enshrined to reduce the instance of such accidents, and you must know these before taking command of any sailing vessel. For boats 39.4 feet and longer, a copy of the RYA regulations must be on board. You must also be fully aware of the regulations for any boat smaller than this, and ignorance will leave you liable in the case of an accident.

These regulations are based on simple ideas of right of way that minimise any doubt about whose responsibility it is to make adjustments if two boats are becoming too close. In a racing situation, these regulations are fiercely enforced and are often used to force other boats off course or out of the wind. In all cases there is a "give-way" vessel and a stand-on vessel. The give-way vessel must manoeuvre and the stand-on vessel should hold its course. The give-way vessel should take action in good time and make it clear what it is going to do, i.e. any action should be deliberate, a series of small adjustments at speed is not appropriate. The stand-on vessel must also be prepared to change course, and should assume that the other vessel does not necessarily understand whose right of way it is.

Right of way is determined according to a series of criteria:

Any boat that is being overtaken automatically gains right of way. The overtaking boat should adjust their course to pass safely and make it clear on which side they intend to pass. In racing conditions this will certainly be upwind, in the hope of stealing the wind from the other boat. This is where the boat sails into the path of another boat and shelters it from the wind, thus increasing the margin by which they overtake.

‘Type of vessel‘ Along with positional factors, there are different types of vessel that automatically earn right of way. They are as follows;

  • A vessel that is not under command or has broken down.
  • A vessel restricted in its ability to manoeuvre which must be marked by ball-diamond-ball day shapes, such vessels could be engaging in dredging or minesweeping and so can not deviate from their course.
  • A commercial vessel engaged in fishing with nets or trawls.
  • A vessel that is under sail – no motor must be engaged even if sails are also raised.
  • A power driven vessel. This can be a sailboat that is using its motor for locomotion.

In the case of two sailboats coming close to each other, the boat which is on the starboard (right) tack has right of way. The tack is determined by the side of the boat that the wind strikes first and so, if on starboard tack ,it is likely that you will be on the starboard side of the boat and sail will be on the port (left) side. If it is not possible to determine which tack the other boat is on, you should assume that it is also on starboard tack for safety reasons.

If both boats are on starboard tack, then the boat which is upwind must give way, as it will have more wind in its sails and so more power to manoeuvre. The boat which is further upwind is referred to as ‘the wind-ward boat’, and the other boat as the ‘leeward’ or ‘lee boat’.

In situations where there is no obvious right of way, both boats should assume they must manoeuvre. In head on situations this could still lead to a collision if both boats chose the same direction. You should always pass on the port-side, i.e. steer to the starboard (right) of the approaching vessel.

When visibility is limited nobody gains right of way and both parties should slow down and keep distance between the boats to avoid a collision.

Beyond the basic RYA rules, there are various qualifications that can be applied which aim to teach all levels of sailing, seamanship and navigation.

‘Competent Crew & Yachtmaster

In addition to these rules you will clearly need to know how to control the boat. An introduction of what is involved in this is detailed just below.