Who Gives Way To Whom?

Sailing boat overtaking another sailing boat

With no lane markings, signs and speed limits on the sea, the thorny problem of who gives way and when is obviously going to be more complicated than it is for road users. The set of navigation rules for vessels, equivalent to the Highway Code for vehicles, is called the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, more easily referred to as the Colregs. Published in 1960, revised in 1972, with some changes and rewrites later than that, many sailors regard the Colregs as sacrosanct, but there is increasing pressure to completely revise and update them. “A sensible idea,” you may say, but wait a moment; the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) reckons that if a member state wants to propose a change to any of the most archaic rules, the guidance for this runs into 35 pages and the changes would have to be passed by several committees. A few of the rules may seem rather dated, but it should be remembered that these are international rules and some that might seem strange to us in the UK may make good sense elsewhere.

Fortunately the regulations concerning “giving way” are reasonably straight forward and current, although you may have quite a search to find them. Hopefully these basic guide lines will help, but do be aware that there are regulations which apply in situations of restricted visibility and at night.

Who Has “Right Of Way”?

The quick answer to this is – no-one.
It is a common misconception that certain vessels have “right of way”. No vessel ever has absolute “right of way” over another vessel, but there can be a “give way” vessel and a “stand on” vessel or even two “give way” vessels with no “stand on” vessel. Even then the “stand on” vessel does not have absolute right of way. The rules concerning Look-out and Safe speed best sum up the situation:

  • Every vessel shall....maintain a proper look-out....so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.
  • Every vessel....shall proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision.

In other words, don’t be so foolhardy as to find yourself in a collision situation because you defended your “right of way” and don’t necessarily expect other boaters to behave in a logical way. There is an old joke-epitaph which reads, “Here lies the body of Mike O’Day, who died maintaining his right of way; his right was sound, his will was strong, but he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong”.

A Few Hints Concerning “Stand On” and “Give Way” Situations.

Sailing Vessels

  • Port gives way to Starboard. (The vessel with the wind to port must give way while the one on a starboard tack is the stand on vessel).
  • Windward gives way to Leeward. (When both vessels have the wind on the same side the windward vessel is the most manoeuvrable so she must give way).
  • Unsure Port gives way. (If a vessel on a port tack cannot determine the wind angle on the approaching vessel, she must give way).
  • A sailing vessel must give way to a vessel not under command, a vessel restricted by her ability to manoeuvre or constrained by her draught, a vessel engaged in fishing, or a mine sweeper.

In all these instances the give way vessel should take positive, early and obvious action to keep well clear of the stand on vessel and the stand on vessel should maintain her course and speed unless it becomes clear that the give way vessel is not taking appropriate action to avoid a collision. In that case she has a duty to give way if that is the only way she can prevent a collision.

Power Boats

  • A power driven vessel must give way to a sailing vessel, a vessel not under command, a vessel restricted in her ability to manoeuvre or constrained by its draught, a vessel engaged in fishing, or a mine sweeper.
  • Two power-driven boats meeting head-on should both alter course so that they pass on the port side of the other.
  • When two power-driven boats are crossing, the vessel which has the other on its starboard side must give way and avoid crossing ahead of her. Remember the saying, “if to starboard red appear, ‘tis your duty to keep clear”.


Any overtaking vessel should keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken until past and clear. The vessel being overtaken should maintain its course if it can do so and the overtaking vessel should not deliberately alter course so as to make itself the stand on vessel.

These are the basic give way regulations which everyone should be aware of before taking to the water but it is well worth while reminding yourself from time to time of the full Colregs. At the same time it is never safe to assume that other sailors understand the regulations, or have actually noticed you. A small sailing yacht can easily be disregarded by a large ocean liner or cargo boat, and even if it does notice the smaller vessel it is hardly likely to interrupt its tight schedule in order to give way. Just because there are windows in a ship’s bridge there is not necessarily anyone looking out of them. Remember too that there is no “Driving Test” which non-commercial boat users have to take, so keeping your distance from other boats is not a cowardly choice, but really good sense if you treasure your boat, your life and the well being of your crew.

Author – Dee White

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