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This skipper probably though the Rules of the Road didn’t apply to his boat. He found out the hard way. Learn from his mistake.

I hope everyone had a great holiday season. I don’t know about you, but our family is excited for 2021 — bring it on! Together, we will make it a great year. In my first column, I wrote about an experience I had while navigating through Buckley’s Pass. After reviewing the column in WaterLine, I thought I should take a step back and explain a little about the history of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Rules of the Road and how they have evolved to what we have in print today.

The Rules of the Nautical Road (NAVRULES) are made up of 41 Rules that all boaters, both recreational and professional alike, must understand and follow. (In case you’re wondering, that includes kayaks!) Their primary purpose is to prevent collisions between vessels on the water.

The NAVRULES are similar to driving rules on our roadways. They help establish who has the right of way and what action must be taken to prevent accidents. Now before you panic, I’m not suggesting you as a recreational boater need the same level of knowledge of the NAVRULES that a licensed captain does. However, I am saying you are required by law to understand and comply with the NAVRULES that are applicable to the geographic location you are operating your boat in.

To accomplish this, you must first understand what rules apply specifically to your vessel. Do you have a sailboat or power boat, and how long is it? You should also be aware of what type of vessels you may encounter in the area you are boating. For example, if you boat primarily in Charlotte Harbor, you’ll see mostly small pleasure craft but might expect to encounter a commercial fishing vessel, tour boat or even a small cargo ship.

A prudent mariner should not only have an understanding of the basic NAVRULES applicable to all boaters but also an understanding of the lights and sounds of the other vessels they may encounter. To fully understand why the NAVRULES are so critical to boating safety, I believe it may be useful to first understand their history, and why they were developed in the first place.

In the early 1800s, ships at sea had no established rules governing who had the right of way. Of course, during this period, we are mostly talking about slow-moving sailing ships that were used for moving freight, passengers, mail or to catch fish. During this unregulated period, collisions were very common.

With the introduction of steamboats which were faster and larger, the United States (being one of the maritime leaders of the sea) felt it necessary to address steamboat safety. As part of the 1838 Act of Congress, it was mandated that steamboats running between sunset and sunrise had to display one or more signal lights.


Eight years later, England introduced the Steam Navigation Act of 1846, which required that English steam vessels pass port-to-port. Shortly after that, the United Kingdom issued regulations requiring steam vessels to display red and green sidelights. Unfortunately, collisions between different nations amplified on the high seas due to the fact that various authorities had established different rules.

It wasn’t until 1889 that the United States assembled the first International Maritime Conference to study regulations for preventing collisions at sea. Fast-forwarding to present day and skipping some history, the entire world (minus North Korea and Cuba) has agreed to follow what we know today as the Rules of the Nautical Road, which became law on July 15, 1977.

Unfortunately, our current state regulations require only that you pass a Florida Boating Safety Education Class if you were born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, and are operating a motor vessel over 10 hp. That means that for most Florida boaters, there is no education requirement whatsoever. That’s terrifying.

Do yourself and all boaters a favor: Find an all-inclusive top-quality boating education class that has USCG-licensed captains as instructors and take it. Don’t let the above history lesson repeat itself on your boat. Knowledge of the NAVRULES is paramount to safe boating before you get out on the water, especially with today’s high-speed vessels and with the increased number of boaters on the water in Florida.

In the end, the prevention of collisions on the water is every boater’s responsibility. If you don’t have a strong working knowledge of the NAVRULES, you need to. Your life and the lives of those onboard your vessel depend on your knowledge of the NAVRULES to keep them from danger.

Capt. Jack R. Sanzalone is a 30-year submarine veteran and licensed USCG Master Captain with 38 years of experience. He is the owner of Boat Tutors and teaches both basic and advanced boating education. You can contact Capt. Jack at Jack@BoatTutors.com or by visiting his website, BoatTutors.com.

Capt. Jack R. Sanzalone is a 30-year submarine veteran and licensed USCG Master Captain with 38 years of experience. He is the owner of Boat Tutors and teaches both basic and advanced boating education. You can contact Capt. Jack at Jack@BoatTutors.com or by visiting his website, BoatTutors.com.

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