What is so difficult about the starboard rule


It had been a long time since I last went sailing on a Solent weekend. But a sunny Saturday in late October came up trumps with up to 15 knots across the deck. We were sailing a 32 foot cruising yacht, close hauled on starboard tack in the general direction of Ryde, with clear water all around. The only nearby craft was a yacht in the region of 40 foot, coming across on port tack with another yacht some way behind.

Port gives way to starboard, right? After a couple of minutes, I didn’t need a compass to tell me we were on collision course. As our yachts got closer and closer, it became obvious that their crew knew we were approaching on starboard tack. There seemed little point in yelling when they just sat there and watched us, with no intention of changing course. I had two options. Either hold my course and risk a collision, which would quite possibly have sent our much smaller yacht to the bottom of the Solent, as well as putting me in the wrong for failing to take action to avoid a collision. As we bore away hard and ducked under their stern, they called something to the effect “We’re having a little race with our friends behind.” So what? Ignoring collision regulations is like turning off all the traffic lights. It’s an invitation to sailing anarchy.

That ill mannered port tack yacht was crewed by half a dozen middle-aged blokes who should have known how to behave. Most sailing people go through the RYA system these days, so my educated guess would be that they had a smattering of Competent Crew, Day Skipper and even Yachtmaster certificates on that port tack yacht. But what in the hell did they learn? At the very least their behaviour was boorish. At worst it was potentially very dangerous.

The rules are extremely simple to understand. Port tack gives way to starboard tack. When two boats are sailing on the same tack, the windward boat (sailing further off the wind) keeps clear. This means that a boat sailing upwind must avoid a boat sailing offwind on the same tack. If two boats are motoring, the boat to starboard has right of way. This is very easy to remember, because the port hand boat can see the starboard boat’s red navigation light, which instructs them to “Stop!” If you are overtaking, you must keep clear. However, it’s worth mentioning the unofficial “Look behind you!” rule. Motoring out of Portsmouth Harbour, we followed a yacht that was slightly to port and about three lengths ahead. Suddenly, it spun through 90 degrees, because the skipper had decided it was a good time to hoist the mainsail. This invitation to a T-bone was easily avoided, but it does pay to look behind before you turn.

Back to rights of way under sail. Port tack gives way to starboard tack is a guiding principle, but may not always be the most appropriate or sensible action. For instance, while we were out in the Solent, the 70-foot Ocean Youth Trust ketch John Laing was sailing nearby. If we had crossed tacks in the same situation, I would have waved them through as a matter of courtesy. John Laing is a big, heavy yacht, which is slow to tack, particularly when most of her crew may be a group of children enjoying their first experience under sail. Remember also that if a yacht is ‘constrained’ by her draught, you must give way, which basically means that common sense is required when crossing tacks in shallow water. How to manage rights of way with yachts that are clearly competing in an organised race is a more thorny issue. Common sense and consideration for other people indicates that you should keep clear of a racing fleet when possible. But sometimes it may be impossible or at least extremely difficult, in which case the best advice is to hold your course and ensure you have right of way. That way, the racers will know exactly what you are up to and will simply have to treat you as a natural obstruction on their course – all part of the fun of racing! Sadly, not all racers will see things that way. Some are seized by ‘droit de seigneur’ on the water and appear to truly believe that everything should get out of their way. This is a widespread affliction, which I have also witnessed among dinghy racers in Chichester Harbour. They weren’t kids – they were middle to late aged adults who should know a great deal better!

So would you rather be classed as a yottie or a yobbo? To avoid the latter, my advice is to abide by rights of way.