Without street signs and divided highways on the water, a detailed set of rules have been established to prevent boating accidents. The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, or COLREGS as they are more often referred, is perhaps one of the most important subjects for new boaters to study. The COLREGS lay out each vessel’s responsibilities in all situations where the risk of a collision exists.
One of the most basic situations, when two vessels under power meet head on, is probably the easiest to remember but failing to act appropriately can increase the risk of danger instead of eliminating it. In the situation illustrated below, when two power-driven vessels are meeting head-on (yes, I know, they’re fish not boats), both must alter course to starboard so that they pass on the port side of the other. That’s pretty easy to remember.
In my opinion, the difficulty occurs in the situation illustrated in the next graphic where the boats are not lined up exactly but are slightly offset. What to do then? If you believe there is any risk at all of collision than you should once again alter course to starboard, and you should do so early and in an obvious way so that the other vessel understands your intentions. If you don’t believe there is a risk of collision then hold your course, do not alter your heading to port! If the other vessel did interpret the situation as dangerous and altered course to starboard as he should, steering to port would again place you on a collision course.
We have run into this situation numerous times while out on the water and even more frequently as people are zipping around in dinghies. It’s a good rule to keep in mind.