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The Unpredictable Truth About Maritime Regulations

By: Captain Bill Jennings

If you dig deep into the rules and regulations that apply to all of us driving a boat, you are going to find some surprises. We have all probably had boating instruction of some kind, whether it was a Power Squadron course, or a Pleasure Craft Operator course, so we understand the basic rules of boating -- right? Well, maybe not. It seems that boating laws are not as specific as road regulations and are interpreted entirely differently. How this effects us will come as a surprise to most boaters.


A key piece of marine legislation was passed in 1972 when an international convention created what is known as COLREGS. These collision regulations entered into force in 1977 and with a few updates still apply today. In 2001, COLREGS with its updates became the Canada Shipping Act. If you are wondering if COLREGS apply to you and your recreational boat, the answer is definitely yes. They apply to all vessels, with a 'vessel' described as anything on the water being used solely or partly for water transportation. Furthermore, COLREGS do not draw any distinction between different types of vessels. Rules for a PWC are the same as those for a large yacht.


To understand the important difference between road and marine regulations, lets look at an example. On the road, if you run a red light and hit someone who was crossing your path from the right or left, you are clearly at fault. But in a boat, things are not as black and white. Of course there are obviously no traffic lights for boats, but the accepted rule (at least the one we were all taught), is that when two boats meet and their courses overlap, the boat which has the other to their starboard side must keep out of the way and avoid crossing in front of the other boat. Conversely, the boat on the left-hand side is the 'give way' boat, and should turn to the right and cross well behind. Therefore, if you were the 'stand on vessel' and the other boat ran into your vessel, you would not be at fault. That is what one would assume to be the case -- but it isn't. What actually happens is that COLREGS introduce a whole series of factors that can mitigate and even change the basic marine rules as we understand them. Everything boils down to a more detailed investigation into the other prevailing circumstances.


In cases where charges are involved, the prosecution uses COLREGS as guidelines only to measure the reasonableness of the mariner’s conduct in assessing guilt under the Criminal Code. In all other accidents, which are the ones we see most frequently, they typically result in the parties suing one another for compensation for property damage or injury.


And here is where COLREGS can change what you believed to be straight forward boating rules -- simply because someone else has breached a COLREG does not necessarily mean they will be responsible for your damages. Instead, it comes down to what extent it breaches the COLREG and depart from the conduct of a reasonably prudent mariner under the circumstances to warrant responsibility. In other words, the court will use COLREGS as a guideline for what represents a reasonably prudent mariner, and therefore what the operator should have done within those specific circumstances. Both parties involved may be found to have a share of guilt, and every case is different.


This concept that a boater who breaks a navigation rule may not always be found guilty stems from COLREG #7 which states that: "every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists. If there is any doubt, such risk shall be deemed to exist."


In other words, as a boat driver, you must continually predict where an accident could possibly occur and take sufficient steps to avoid it. If you don't -- you are guilty too. Put a different way, breaking a navigation rule does not lead to an immediate conclusion that the boater's conduct was negligent. This brings us to the scary conclusion that it is virtually impossible to have an accident with another vessel and not be found to be at least partially responsible.


Here's another example. You are cruising in a straight direction and choose to pass a slower boat ahead. You are passing, keeping him on your starboard side, when he suddenly turns left and bounces off your boat. The rule states that, "Every vessel is directed to keep out of the way of another vessel and so far as possible, take early and substantial action to keep well clear." Shouldn't this mean that you are not the guilty party? However, a separate COLREG states that the "overtaking vessel should keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken." COLREGS would also ask -- was the space you provided sufficient? Did you signal? Did you give the correct signal and was your signal loud enough? Suddenly, in a situation where you considered yourself guilt free, you could now be considered partially at fault.


While Coast Guard accident reports have identified driver inattention as the #1 cause of incidents, the COLREGS specify that "every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look out." When you go for a casual boating cruise, do you always appoint a person to be your lookout? I guess we need to start. I'm even thinking of installing a dashcam on my boat.


When it comes to defining what is a safe speed, the COLREGS provide similar opportunities for shared guilt. While the speed rule states that 'every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed that has been adapted to prevailing circumstances and restricted visibility,' it also lists factors which could alter how a safe speed for a specific situation is determined. As such, COLREGS are better suited to determine fault after an incident, rather than providing guidance to an operator prior to an incident.


Given the importance that COLREGS assign to a clear understanding of where and what other boaters are doing, it's no surprise the rules provide considerable detail as to what you must do regarding visibility. Sections on poor weather visibility could make you negligent during early morning fishing on a misty day. Incorrect or incomplete lighting could make you guilty under the lighting regulations section. It seems almost impossible for an average pleasure boater to operate guilt free from all aspects of COLREGS.


The bottom line with marine regulation is that the rules on the water are very different than those for the road. Most of us have no idea how easy it is to get caught up in difficult and costly legal matters. The best way to avoid such problems is to give yourself lots of space, proceed cautiously, and pay attention. #news #tips #quicktips

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