Skip to main content
Add Me To Your Mailing List
HomeRules of the Water

Rules of the Water

Basic Navigation Rules The Rules are broken into two types: Inland and International rules. There are only a few signicant dierences so most of what we will discuss here will pertain to both. You should remember that the imaginary line called the COLREGS Demarcation Line, usually drawn from one headland to the next at inlets, is where the rules change from inland to international and vice versa. When you are oshore of the line you obey international rules, and when inshore of the line you observe inland rules. The one thing rules are designed to do is to prevent collisions between watercraft. Let’s keep this in mind when considering the rules. 


Basic Information


Rule 1- Application (Who do the rules apply to)
The rules apply to ALL vessels on the high seas and inland waters. US and foreign boats. The rules don’t have to be observed by war ships.


Rule 2 – Responsibility (Rule of Good Seamanship)
You may depart from obeying the rules when necessary to avoid a collision. This means that you should exhaust all the actions you should take according to the Rules to avoid a collision, but you can break the rules to avoid colliding with another boat. This usually happens when the other boater doesn’t know or doesn’t obey the rules and you have to take action so you don’t hit one another . 


Rule 3 – General Denitions (Here are some highlights)

  • Power-driven vessel – a vessel powered by any kind of machinery. This includes sailboats that have their engine on. You turn into a power-driven boat when your motor goes on, even when your sails are still up.

  • Sailing Vessel – a boat being propelled by sails only.

  • Fishing Vessel – a boat that has gear that prevents it from maneuvering. This is like a shrimp trawler, but not a sport sherman trolling.

  • Restricted in Ability to Maneuver (RAM) – a boat that because of the work it does can’t maneuver well. A boat dredging St. Simons Bar Channel is a good example. He has a dredge on the bottom (his work) and can’t get out of anybody’s way. A Coast Guard buoy tender at work is another example.

  • Not Under Command (NUC) – a boat that can’t maneuver due to some exceptional issue and can’t get out of anybody’s way. Maybe a boat with a damaged rudder or is drifting due to engine problems.

  • Constrained By Draft (CBD) – a boat that due to its draft or breadth has to stay on its course usually because of a narrow channel. NOTE: this is one of the rules that apply only to the International Rules. There is so much shallow and narrow water in Inland areas they don’t use this rule in Inland areas, probably because everyone would invoke this status.

  • Underway – is when a vessel is not anchored, aground or tied to the shore. This means that when you are drifting during one of the summer races you are technically underway and must comply with all these rules of the road.

  • Restricted Visibility – is any condition that reduces your visibility. This means fog, mist, heavy rain, snow (God forbid), sandstorms and the like. Restricted visibility causes you to abide by a whole bunch of rules for lighting and sound signals since the risks of collision is much more likely when you can’t see the guy in front of you. If you are near a fog bank but not in it you are still considered to have restricted visibility of any boat that may be in the fog bank. Remember that nighttime (darkness) is not included as a scenario for restricted visibility, you may be able to see for miles – it’s just dark out.

  • In Sight – when a boat can visually see another boat. The rules for sound signals, day shapes and some other stuff will depend on whether you can see the other boat or you can’t.  


Basic Race Rules

Here are the minimum you need to know to enjoy racing with Golden Isles Sailing Club Long books have been written about sailing rules and regulations, but you don't need to study these to get started in racing. For your safety and that of other sailors, you should make yourself aware of the basic principles of racing. With the general rules listed below you have the basic information to come out and have a great day on the water .

  1. Do not hit another boat. If you hit another boat (or force it to alter course to avoid you when you do not have right of way) then you must take a penalty or be disqualified. The normal penalty is a 720 degree turn, in other words 2 tacks and 2 gybes. Even if you are the right of way boat, you may be in the wrong if there is a collision, so a right of way boat may have to take a penalty turn as well. A right of way boat must do all it can to avoid a collision. If it doesn’t it must take a penalty, but if it’s done all it can and still cannot keep clear then it doesn’t need to take a penalty.

  2. Starboard tack has right of way. A starboard tack boat is one which has the wind on the starboard side. Therefore its boom will be on the port side. A port tack boat approaching a starboard tack boat has usually two choices, either tack onto starboard tack or go round the stern of the starboard tack boat.

  3. Windward boat must keep clear. The windward boat is the one nearest to the wind. He must keep clear of the boat to leeward, and this means all of him, including his boom and rigging. Therefore, if sailing with your boom well out you need to be quite a bit away to stop your boom hitting the hull, head or rigging of the chap to leeward!

  4. Boats on the outside at a mark (we use buoys in St. Simons Sound mostly) must keep clear of boats inside. This rule only applies when you are approaching a mark, which is defined as within 2 boat lengths of it. The boat on the inside is allowed room to round the mark without hitting it, so the boat on the outside must keep clear . Therefore the inside boat will often call ‘Water at the mark!’ when approaching the mark, warning the other boat to keep clear .

  5. There is a penalty for hitting a Mark (Buoy) The penalty for hitting a buoy is a 360 degree turn, or one tack and one gybe. If you hit a mark and do not take a penalty you will be disqualified. 

  6. Obstructions There are a number of rules regarding obstructions. An obstruction is obviously the dock wall or a buoy, but it could equally be a shrimp boat, the gambling boat or even another racing boat that you have to keep clear of. If you need to change course to clear an obstruction you are entitled to ask for room to do so, likewise, if someone asks for room you should give it to them. The most common call is ‘water to tack’. If someone calls this to you, you should tack immediately.  

  7. Other Rules There are many other rules and sub-clauses, but mainly they define when and how the above rules are applied, so for starting out these rules are all that is required.

  8. Starting Sequence Since our race committee is also racing we only use sound signals for the start sequence. The signals are a blast from a horn, and are broadcast over the radio to make sure everyone can hear them.