COLREGs – Give Way or Stand On - by Captain Grant H Livingstone

Good article - One unknown is does the boat operator understand COLREGS but even without COLREGS knowledge it seems more likely the boat operator will pass down the port side to avoid collision, perhaps out of no more than preservation instinct.

Part Two out of Three Part articles on COLREGS.

Are some professional mariners unintentionally violating COLREGS in a conscientious effort to avoid close quarters situations with small boats? A review a few of the most common violations professional mariners are being found at fault for or debate in inland waters with small boats is worthy of discussion.

The first is the classic crossing situation Rule 15; “When two power driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision the vessel which has the other on her starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall if the circumstances of the case permit avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel.” The obligation of the stand on vessel triggers Rule 17©. In brief a power driven vessel which takes action in a crossing situation to avoid collision shall if the circumstances of the case permit not alter course to port for a vessel on her own port side.

This is very common in inland waters as small power boats (or sailboats) on the ships port bow are not yielding or giving way in a crossing situation. The small boat appears to be set on crossing the ships bow port to starboard. This is where professional mariners Prudent Seamanship (common sense on the water) kicks in. If there really is a risk of hitting the small boat (crossing our bow from port) by maintaining our course as stand on vessel, then altering course to starboard might increase the risk of collision……depending on the circumstances. By altering course to starboard, we potentially chase the small boat crossing our bow to starboard.

Therefore many professional mariners may see a turn to port (common sense) as the most expedient and safest way to clear the small boat heading to our starboard. We’ll pass astern of the give way vessel to avoid collision if they won’t give way. The fatal flaw in that common sense view is when the small boat gives way at the very last second and turns to their starboard or stops to avoid crossing our bow. In that case, small boat giving way off our port bow, the odds of collision go up dramatically if we turned our ship to port.

In case after case the professional mariner that turned to port to avoid a small boat crossing to starboard from its port bow (violating Rule 17©) are found at fault. Very similar is Rule 19 under Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility; Rule 19(i) an alteration of course to port for a vessel forward of the beam other than a vessel being overtaken …… shall be avoided.

Mariners often find themselves trying to outguess the small boat crossing their bow. If we are the stand on vessel at what point do we give way? Any decision based on “outguessing” falls under the COLREGS admonishment not to make decisions based on scanty information. Rule 17(b) ends with; If collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give way vessel alone, she (stand on vessel) shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision. The professional mariner shall take action to avoid collision but it cannot be a turn to port for a vessel off the port bow.

In part three of this series we look into what may be the Grand Daddy of COLREG debate and interpretation among professional mariners; Rule 34. Traditionally referred to as the ‘Danger Signal’.

Interesting…I sailed with Capt Grant and his brother George in the late '70s when they were fresh out of school.

Be interested in part 1, and part 3 when he gets round to it.

I don’t know if I would agree with “unintentional”. My thought if you alter course "Its clearly Intentional"
Is it a breach of the rules? Well, yea ,maybe, sort off kind of, probably, depends. Rule 2 or Catch 22.
If the alteration to port results in a collision? Very probably.
An interesting question might also be, How often is a passing arrangement made green to green which of course involve an alteration to port.
Interesting point, Still the same story re breach of the rules.
Yet a common practice.
Common practice, becomes accepted practice, Not a big step to making an assumption.

If it’s often done, I would suggest it is by the less experienced.
The more experienced, will have done it, then the little bugger altered. Got away with it? The result more experienced. Perhaps a little wiser.

The question. Might be do they fully understand the implications of the action they are taking when as a stand on vessel they choose to make an alteration of course to port for a give way vessel crossing from port. Or in a near head on situation. Just to open the CPA a little?

The article does refer to inland waters. Narrow channels do come to mind.
It can happen in any coastal waters where are lots of small boats.
It can happen far offshore with only 2 vessels.

Sometimes, The best thing to do is reduce speed. Often the last consideration. Why?

The article is saying for boats turning at the last second so that’s going to be close.

Many mariners including some pilots don’t understand the difference in perspective between a large ship and a boat. It might seem that the large vessel looming over the boater would make it appear to the boat that the ship was closer than it actually is. But the opposite is true.

Because of the perspective, from the boat the ship appears further away across a stretch of open water while from the ship, looking down, the boat appears closer. Anyone that has anchored in a tight spot then seen the same view from a launch will confirm this. This is one reason why boats get as close as they do. To the person in a boat a mile away there appears to be a lot of water between them and the ship, but from the ship, looking down, a mile seems close.

As far as speed, if we are talking ship lengths, say 200 meters, if I change speed from full harbor speed (12 kts) to dead slow (6 kts) in couple ship lengths the speed may reduce by a couple tenths of a knot or so.

I’d also add that small vessels don’t always realize the speed a large ship is making as well. At least offshore that is. A center console fishing boat on plane doing 20 knots doesn’t realize that container ship is possibly going faster. At least this is my theory off the coast of Florida.

Yes, for sure, offshore and in port. I’ve been sailing in Puget Sound a few times with former shipmates. Of course we stayed well clear of commercial traffic but it’s surprising how short a time a large ship will move from in sight around the bend to gone round the next turn.

As far as COLREGS and small vessels up close, what is the practical difference between a speed boat trying to pass ahead from port and one trying to do the same thing from stbd? Obviously if you turn right for a speed boat on the stbd side and it hits you might be somewhat better off legally but as a practically matter is it better to turn or hold course? Is a speed boat less likely to turn or stop if he thinks he can’t make it from the stbd side?

Assuming the ship can’t avoid the close quarters situation in the first place.

That is in maneuver mode with the ECR manned, but how long does it take before you can even slow, stop or reverse the engine (except crash stop) when on normal sea speed with the ECR unmanned, even in an emergency situation?

In my days, with the engine room manned at all times, the norm was to notify at least 1/2 hr. before any maneuver was planned. At night when the Chief Eng. needed to be called, maybe 1 hr. notice was required. (1/2 hr. for “scratching and coffee” incl.)

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Oh please. In bridge control you can slow down or stop whenever you want from the bridge. This is bridge control by definition. There may be system / equipment consequences to deal with afterwords but if bridge watchstanders do not understand the difference between normal procedures for arrival and emergency / urgent procedures while underway you probably ought to have a little departmental get together and discuss the capabilities of your specific ship and make plans for if/when it happens to you.

kinetic energy = mv^2 so any reduction in speed would presumably lessen the damage impacts in a collision. If the Crystal watchstander ruled out slowing down (assuming it made sense operationally - leave that to you deck types to debate) ONLY because “that’s not the normal way we go about maneuvering” then he was operating with incomplete information.

I would think that all watchstanders are aware that there is a Crash Stop option. There should even be a poster on the bridge explaining how to work it, but probably also aware of the consequences of pulling the throttle from Full Ahead to Stop and onwards to Full Astern while at sea speed. (Perceived or otherwise)

He MAY even have been instructed not to use that option without the Master’s presents and consent?

Maybe this would be a situation where it should have be used??
Or maybe not?? Unless the hand steering had already been engaged and a Quartermaster at the wheel, the two action of turning away from the danger and at the same time instigating a Crash Stop may not have been possible to do simultaneously.
Besides, slowing down and reducing propeller wash against the rudder would have reduced the effect of the helm order, thus lengthened the time to make the course change, which would be the primary aim.

Someone with more up to date experience from vessels similar to the AXC Crystal and knowledge of SOP / ERP on such vessels could chip in here?

In port where there is limited space to maneuver it’s not uncommon to slow down to give a pleasure craft a little more time to cross, almost always a sail boat.

The engine room is on standby any time we are in restricted waters. In waters that are not restricted I’ve never seen a close quarters situation that couldn’t be gotten out of by turning, worse case scenario a round turn can be made. A full 180 degree turn can be made inside about 1/3 mile. The speed is going to come off much more rapidly with a hard turn then by reducing turns.

Before transiting High Risk Waters (piracy) we used to practice zig-zags, the trick is to take it easy on the rudder to keep up the speed, otherwise you can get down from 18+ kts quickly.

Yes I agree. To turn hard astarboard would reduce the speed, and hopefully accomplish what you wanted in this case, much faster then to try to reduce speed by slowing down and eventually stopping the engine.

This would be my understanding of bridge control, Also worked much the same in ECR control.
I also used the term “sometimes”,
I’ve never been on a ship where I could not reduce speed, from full sea speed, I didn’t say the Chief would like it.
A Hard turn will reduce speed, Sometimes turning is not a good plan.
Just move the telegraph, From full to half, or even Slow.
Yes I am talking about slow speed single screw direct reversible Sultzer and B&W they can both be slowed down without a crash stop.
Older ones don’t like actually being stopped unless switched over from HFO to DO newer ones can manoeuver on HFO and stop for a short period of time.

We were talking about Crash Stop mainly. Yes it is possible that it would be possible to slow down if the situation called for it early enough.

In this case I would say it was too late for that and a hard turn away from the oncoming danger was the right choice.

BTW; If the ECR is unmanned and there is Bridge Control throttle, why use the telegraph??

When in bridge control the wheelhouse EOT (Engine Order Telegraph) controls the engine speed. The other choices (in my experience anyway) are “Engine control” which is a matching EOT in the Engine Control room and “engine side” control which is on the side of the engine and is just a big handle by the governor (?).

Normally we get “bridge control” at Stand by when leaving port and switch back to “engine control” when all fast. For “engine side” control the engineers take control in the ECR and then switch to engine side.

The EOT in the bridge can be used in engine control mode but the engineers would answer the bells. This is only if there is a failure or drill.

Once upon a time long long ago. In a place far far away. Pre STCW 78 (The Gluf )

The Mate and The Old Man, Decided, The Mate could work days, Mate on a tanker running short coastal, Lots of cargo work , The 3rd Mate should do the 4 to 8 and I should do the 8 to 12 on my own.

I guess I was considered a step up from a barking dog.

I was called up to the bridge. About 1930. I thought I was in the shit again. The Old man was a rough old bastard. Been at see since before WW2. He didn’t like long haired young freaks like me. I didn’t like him at all.

Old Man, asked me 2 questions.
1st He pointed at the, Wheel and asked what and what s it for.
I was quite confused I was pretty sure he well into the rum by this time. WhyTF was he pointing at a wheel and asking what it was? Ok I humor him, stupid old c1234. Uhh, the wheel.

2nd question he pointed at the telegraph, What’s that and what’s it for.? Uhh, The Telegraph,

Your a bit slow on the f!@#ing Uptake today, I asked you what there for. I came up with some kind of answer, Steering the ship and control the RPM cant remember but It must have been good enough .

Right, your on watch from 8 till 12. till you hear otherwise. You know what the wheel and the telegraph are.
Don’t forget the telegraph, Use them if you have to, Then Call me.
That was it, He left, I got a handover from the Mate and I stood my first watch,

I called him a few times, He would show up, And Ask, What I had done about it, Ok carry on, or some advice.
I never forgotten his advice, Don’t forget the telegraph. Use it if you have to, Then call me.


OK we may have different terms here. To me this is an Engine Order Telegraph:

And this is Engine Controls:

In this case both RPM and Pitch Control.

Maybe I’m old fashion, or there are different names for the same in different parts of the world.

OK, I am familiar with this type of EOTs as well:

BTW; If the ECR is unmanned and there is Bridge Control throttle, why use the telegraph??

Ships vary in there control or bridge console set up. Although some ships have separate controls on the bridge for the engines and a dedicated telegraph as a back up.
Very often particularly large slow speed diesels have a combined bridge control and telegraph. In ECR control it acts just as a telegraph. On Bridge control the engine will go to the RPM setting according to the position of the telegraph. D Slow, Slow, Half, Full often with a second Full for Full away and Stand By may be on the main telegraph or a separate indicator.

Nice pictures I like the one on top unfortunately rarely seen now, The 100 million dollar ship and 5 dollar plastic ones are the norm.

Your second picture is very familiar. I suspect the same manufacturer. The panels really annoy me, There no way in hell I can see the white writing on the little buttons, without my glasses. And I can’t see out the window with my glasses.

The ones I am familiar with there is only one T handle, per engine. Press the little button I cant see to change from ECR to Bridge control use the same lever.

I have just read Part 3 and part 1

Not much to say about part 1 it really doesn’t say much other than we like little boats after all. I like little boats to. I would prefer not to hit one. I will do my best to do what is required to ensure I don’t. Would any of us do otherwise? Of course not.

We might differ about how we achieve the desired result. Hence part 2 altering Course to Port.


this is PART 3 of a series about the COLREGs. Scroll down for links to Part 1 & 2

by Captain Grant H. Livingstone The Grand Daddy of COLREGs debate and interpretation among professional mariners may be Rule 34; traditionally called the ‘Danger Signal’ five short blasts on the ships whistle. I have sailed with professional mariners that would sound five short blasts at everything and those that would only sound five short blasts when they believed collision was eminent. Many times sounding five short blasts only confounds private boaters who do not understand its meaning. There are circumstances where professional mariners hesitate to sound any signal fearing the small boat will turn the wrong way.

Sheer Will: The Story of the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channell
Related Book: Sheer Will: The Story of the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel by David H Falloure

I used the term ‘Danger Signal’ on the bridge and when I sounded five short blasts that meant potential danger of collision in my mind. After conferring with esteemed colleagues who are expert, my view of Rule 34 has evolved and it may be worth discussion.

Rule 34 (d) is clear. When vessels in sight of one another fail to understand the intentions or actions of the other, or is in DOUBT whether sufficient action is being taken by the other to avoid collision, the vessel in DOUBT shall immediately show such DOUBT by giving at least five short rapid blasts on the ships whistle.

Failing to understand the actions or intentions of the other may arguably exist without risk of collision. Initially under that circumstance we have time to wait and assess after sounding five short blasts. Assuming we are the stand on vessel we maintain course and speed. After time to assess, if the other vessel does not appear to be taking sufficient action to give way or avoid collision and we are still in doubt Rule 7(a) directs us to consider that risk of collisions exits. This is when action to avoid collision, Rule 8, can become a sticky wicket. Time may be running out for proper and sufficient action to avoid collision. In many close quarters situations the mariner would need a crystal ball to know if the give way vessel was going to clear safely (avoiding a collision) before ‘crossing bows’. But Rule 8(e) is clear; if necessary to avoid collision or allow more time to assess the situation a vessel shall slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping and reversing her means of propulsion. “If necessary” is highly subjective and possibly very difficult to assess until after the fact. Perhaps there will be no collision and therefore no need to make large course alterations or slacken speed and take all way off. But if there is a collision after sounding five short blasts and the mariner did not take sufficient action to avoid collision they will be held at fault; severely so.

In conclusion it may not be necessary to slacken speed or change course or take all way after sounding five short blasts when risk of collision is deemed to exit. But it is Prudent Seamanship to take some action and may, one time out of one thousand, save a professional mariners career and possibly live(s).

Many thanks to Pacific Maritime Institute’s Bill Anderson Jr., Gregg Trunnell and Steve Burtchael for their invaluable advice on COLREGS

I kind of wonder about the debate or why it would be a debate, I thought it is fairly clear myself.
I sound 5 short, If it looks like there will be a close quarters, I believe I am stand on, When it I get concerned about the other vessels apparent lack of action.
I don’t sound 5 short if I am give way. I give way. 5 short not required.

So what is there to debate?

The timing.
It leads into action by a stand on vessel. Well you stand on of course. Till when? Now we have something to debate.
The 5 short is an important part of the action by a stand on vessel.
When do you sound the 5 short?.
What do expect when you sound 5 short?
Do you have to sound 5 short prior to taking action, as stand on vessel? Yes, & No
You should sound 5 short in sufficient time for the give way vessel to hear it and react prior to taking action as a stand on vessel.
If you don’t see a reaction Sound 5 short again. My thought If I am sounding 5 short more than once. Its time to start acting.
The & No. You should have sounded 5 short already and things are getting closer, You should still act, Just your going to have some explaining to do.
All the above should be done while you can still by your own action avoid a collision.

If not you are in to the situation where you have to take action to best aid the give way vessel to avoid collision, Good luck with this one.

Next debate
As a vessel being impeded. You are still give way, but are being impeded, 5 short appropriate? Yes why not. You are signaling Doubt about intentions.
Even though I tend to think I am signaling. Get TFO my way.

I will just through this in again, Sometimes the best action is to reduce speed.