Chapter 4 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea - COLREG

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This chapter explains the International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea (IRPCS). (They are also known as "COLREGS" or "Rules of the Road".)

As well as rules on how to avoid collisions, the IRPCS contains definitions of the lights vessels are to show, and the sounds they are to make, in different circumstances. There is a section on each of these in this chapter.

It is not intended that you should reard this chapter as a complete and authoritative definition of what is, in fact, an international convention backed by the force of law. We refer you to the most authoritative source of that information (as we did with the relevant Admiralty Publication for chart symbols) and recommend that you acquire this and use it.

This chapter simply explains the things you need to know as a yacht skipper, and how they apply to you. It contains four sections:

a) what the rules of the road are, i.e. what to do if you may be in danger of collision with another vessel

b) the lights and shapes you need to display, and the ones you are likely to need to recognise, and their meaning.

c) the sounds you are likely to hear, and their meaning

d) glossary.

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So far in this Theory Class, we have been concerned with the techniques for finding our way from A to B, the action of the tides, and the use of Charts, other publications, and navigational aids which help us to navigate safely.

In this chapter, for the first time, we are concerned with other vessels.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations, which is responsible for measures to improve the safety and security of international shipping, and to prevent marine pollution from ships. Part of its remit is to draft and maintain international Conventions, one of which is the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (COLREGs).

In practice, therefore, this convention embodies the law on how we are to behave in relation to other vessels. As you might guess, the Regulations are drawn up with commercial shipping in mind, but they apply to all vessels. Governments and local harbour authorities may also impose their own local rules, but as far as possible those rules will conform to the International Regulations.

It is worth owning the "chapter and verse" definition of these regulations, and not relying on other people's interpretation or explanation of them (helpful though those may be in their own way). We recommend the RYA's publication G2/95 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, which contains the full text as well as helpful explanations to enable you to interpret the rules correctly. Or you may prefer the IMO's own publication, COLREG Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972: Consolidated Edition 2003.

Finally, how much of this is for Day Skippers and how much for more advanced skippers? It's difficult to define the things that Day Skippers "don't need to know", and basically they should be aware of all of it, particularly the rules of the road. Clearly they have less need to know the lights of other vessels if they are not planning to go out at night, but do try to learn the shapes that different vessels display.

Advanced skippers are going to need to learn all of it - particularly if you are planning to do your Yachtmaster exam - because there is very rarely time to look it up when you have a decision to make! Personally I find that unless you are using it every week, you forget some of these things, particularly the lights and shapes - you need to re-learn it from time to time. You can keep each other on your toes by testing each other ...