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


The topic is commercial ship with an encounter with a private boater. One unknown is the level of knowledge of the boater. Livingstone says 5 short might “confound” the boater.

Another issues is the perception of distance, when does risk of collision exist? The boater likely perceives it as much closer the a large vessel. Also at what point is the give way not taking action? The “in extremis situation,” when one vessel alone can not avoid a collision, what does that mean for a 300 meter commercial vessel at 14 kts and a boater out sightseeing in a 7 meter vessel at 30 kts?


If you are a vessel that is not allowed to be impeded then you are not “give way”, they are required to not impede you.


I’ve still sounded five short more than once as the give way vessel when the stand on vessel isn’t acting with clear intentions. I.E. holding their course and speed.

This is the primary issue with meeting recreational vessels. They often don’t understand their situation as the rules dictate and don’t act accordingly. You’ll hear more than a few old timer tugboat guys say “don’t turn until you can see the whites of their eyes”. This is to simplify your end of the deal, as otherwise you often end up in a death wobble going back and fourth with a boater who thinks they are getting out of your way, thinks they aren’t in the way, or is just doing what they are doing with out knowledge or regard to your presence.
If you wait until the last minute and then make a large an apparent maneuver it gives them less chance to change their mind on you!

The COLREGs might govern all afloat, but they weren’t really written with the swarms of ignorant recreational traffic we see now a days in mind.


That’s how the pilots do it, no point in turning early because while the large vessel perceives that there is risk of collision. the small vessel does not.

The other issue is while large vessel maneuver with a plan in mind the small vessels are using trail and error.

Last time I was inbound Puget Sound just after coming around Pt. Wilson we had small high speed cruiser on our port bow, steering as if planning to pass ahead but on collision course. The cruiser held on till he must have realized he couldn’t make it then he turned to stbd to go astern.

The boat operator must have then thought going astern was going to take too long, so he turned to port to go ahead again but this time with course more to the left then original. But after he turned to port he was much closer, inside a mile but he must have realized for the second time he wasn’t going to make it and turned to stbd a final time and crossed astern.

That’s a typical encounter, one of many. The small boat operators don’t understand the value of making a single course change for collision avoidance then holding that till clear. Instead they zigzag, oblivious of how that appears to the other vessel.

The boat operator was probably enjoying his day, out on the water, having a beer, enjoying some music, while on the ship it’s looking like an in extremis maneuver might be in our very near future. The boat operators don’t think in terms of “risk of collision”, they’re just zigzagging through traffic, on their way to wherever they might be going.


Maybe the Norwegian way of; “Pleasure boat keep away from commercial vessels” as a general rule may be way to go? This is known any accepted by most recreational users, although you still have some idiot and Tarzan’s on the water, especially in the summer and around the Oslo Fjord.

Pleasure boat means; anything below 15 m .LOA used solely for recreational purposes.
Commercial vessels means; any vessel used for gainful purposes, incl. fishing boats and tour boats etc.
Anything over 15 m. LOA require a maritime licence eqv. to IMO STCW C5, even if used for recreational purposes only:
Any pleasure boat below 15 m. but above 8 m. LOA require a Boating Licence:


All 3 parts together are about dealing with small pleasure boats. Throwing in two particular issues.
1st, Altering to port when you are stand on.
2nd, 5 short and the reaction of small boats.
I usually found the 5 short not a problem, re understating and confusing small boats,

A problem I found more often. Would be the reaction to the other signals, We are supposed to sound 1 or 2. I find If I sound 1 or 2 short. Small boats have a tendency to panic and start going round in circles.

South bound Pt Wilson. I routinely found I was telling VTS I was going to be in the separation Zone due to small vessels. Even more often S Bound of President Pt. The edge of the bank a popular fishing spot.


You got that right! Maneuvering with small recreational boats and sail boats, particularly when there are a lot of them, is like trying to play chess with someone who doesn’t know the rules at all and just moves randomly. It’s impossible to plan much ahead for them.

Making your move late-to-last-second is sometimes the only way to keep from killing them. When there’s a crowd and I’m coming in a channel, say East Passage of NB or Boston, I usually don’t make big course changes, though. I mostly hold my line, give out plenty of horn as needed, and make small adjustments at the last second to brush them off only if I have to.

This is all with red flag barges. If you’re doing general towing with non-hazmat your options are somewhat better.


That’s for sure about moving tank barges. I’ve been known to tell a family friend or two that I’d rather run their boat over full of the grade school choir than spill oil in buzzards bay. I’d get less jail time.


I would recommend calling the other boat on the radio as soon as it appears that that boat may not be intending to
move in a direction consistent with the COLREGS.


In dealing with small boats and fishing trawlers, you have to make an attempt to contact on 13 or 16 and sound danger signal. There have cases where the pilot was found partly at fault for not attempting to call.