Here are the Simple Right of Way Rules (not to be confused with reality):
Sailboat vs. Powerboat
A sailboat under sail has the right of way over a powerboat. A sailboat under power becomes a powerboat — see below.
Sailboat vs. Sailboat
Both boats on the same tack: the leeward boat has the right of way.
Boats on opposite tacks: the boat on starboard tack has the right of way.
Note (for the really challenged!): A boat is on the starboard tack when the boom is on the port side (or left side). A boat is on the port tack when the boom is on the starboard side (or right side).
Sailboat under power, or powerboat vs. Powerboat
Powerboats include a sailboat under power, even if the sails are still up: the boat on the right side has the right of way. Simple.
A boat overtaken by another boat has the right of way. The boat being overtaken must stay the course.
When two power driven boats are approaching head-on, neither has the right of way. However, it is usually accepted that you should alter course to starboard (right) and pass port-to-port.
A boat that is racing; a boat that is towing; a boat that is fishing with nets, trawls, etc.; and a boat that has lost its ability to maneuver... all have the right of way.
Are we on a collision course?
How can you tell? Easy! (Method is valid regardless of the distance between the boats). Say you see a boat seemingly coming towards yours at an angle, and you see it just forward of your starboard stay (If you have a hand compass, and you want to impress your neophyte crew, you can also take a bearing of the other boat.) Check again 2 to 3 minutes later. Three things can have happened:
The other boat is now much more forward of your starboard stay. In other words, the bearing of the other boat has moved forward. Result: If both boats maintain speed, the other boat will pass yours ahead of your bow. No risk of collision. If the boat is very far, re-check every 5 minutes.
The boat is now much more aft of your starboard stay. In other words, the bearing of the other boat has moved aft. Result: If both boats maintain speed, the other boat will pass yours behind of your stern. No risk of collision. If the boat is very far, re-check every 5 minutes.
The boat is still at the same place relative to your starboard stay. In other words, the bearing of the other boat has not changed. Result: If both boats maintain speed, there is a probable risk of collision.
In this case, try to evaluate if you have the right of way, using the rules above. If you do not have the right of way; or even if you do, but feel that the situation becomes dangerous because the intention of the other boat is not clear, you must take evasive action. And that action must be clear and unequivocal to the other boat's crew.
Rules for Container Ships and any other sea monsters:
Vessels that are much bigger than yours have the right of way, no matter what - cargo freighters, cruise ships, container ships etc. In theory, there are plenty of situations where they do not have the right of way. However, from experience, most large freighters and some cruise liners simply do not monitor Channel 16, or their watch keeper is asleep. Our advice is to just keep clear. In fact, no matter what size the boat, If there is any chance that the other vessel’s crew cannot see you, just give way. The various tragedies that have occurred over the years with yachts being run down by container ships will go on occurring unless yachts take complete responsibility for the avoidance of collision.
Power gives way to Sail – doesn’t it? – a Blackwattle Story
So there we were, somewhere northwest of Darwin, on our way to Ashmore Reef.
Lazy day, sunshine, great visibility, wind behind us, lunchtime.
‘Ya reckon that container ship is on a collision course?’
‘The one on our starboard bow, about 1.00 o’clock, about three miles away’
‘O the big red one’
‘Watch it for a minute’
Silence while we wait for the ship to shift angle. No shift.
‘I reckon he’s going to hit is in about 10 minutes’
‘OK, changing course’
‘Just a minute, engine is meant to give way to sail’ Someone must have been bored that day….
Sigh…. ‘Why don’t you try it?’
(In the following conversation, I have omitted all the ’over’s)
‘Red container ship on our starboard bow, this is yacht Blackwattle on Channel 16’
Very surprisingly, we get an answer
‘Station calling Windhoven, please come in.’ It’s an Italian accent.
‘Windhoven, this is yacht Blackwattle, do you read me.’
‘Yes, Blackwater, I read you – where are you?’
‘We’re on your port bow, and we believe we are on a collision course’
‘Just a minute, I can’t see you. Stand by’
‘Windhoven this is Blackwattle – can you see us now?’
‘I have a very small blip on my radar – is that you?’
‘Probably Windhoven. We think we are the only vessel on your port bow. Could you change course please’
‘Blackwater this is Windhoven – could you repeat?’
‘We are on a collision course and I asked you to change course.’
‘We are a very large vessel Sir’
‘Yes I can see that. However, the rule of the sea is that motor is meant to give way to sail, Captain, so could you change course please?’
Now there’s a silence.
‘Blackwater this is Windhoven. Er, it takes us five miles to alter course. Maybe you could be understanding and change course for us please?’
‘Very well, Windhoven, with the greatest of reluctance, we shall change course.’
‘Thank you Sir, have a good day’
‘Thank you and the same to you.’
Of course, you must see it from the Container Ships’ perspective, as the above story illustrates.
Captain Jim Dargaville, for many years a pilot in the Australian Merchant Marine, tells the story from the point of view of the ship at sea.
WAITING ON TEXT FROM JIM