Andy du Port explains the history of how the ColRegs were founded and suggests they might be due an update

For several hundred years there have been unofficial rules, mainly based on the customs of the Royal Navy, for preventing collisions at sea.

These rules, such as they were, enjoined ships commanded by junior officers to keep clear of their seniors.

This worked well if you knew the relative seniorities of your fellow commanding officers, but could lead to confusion when meeting with friendly merchant ships.

As we were usually at war around that time, you simply captured or sank any foreign warships. Problem solved.

A tall ship passing a container ship

The power giving way to sail rules made more sense when sailboats were limited in their manoeuvrability. Credit: Patrick Eden/Alamy

It was not until 1776, as shipping increased and collisions became more common, even among RN ships, that Admiral Lord Richard Howe, then commanding a fleet off the north-east coast of America, drew up a signal book which included a simple rule:

‘In order to avoid inconvenience from the customary practice with respect to the conduct of Senior Officers towards their juniors, ships of war are to bear up for each other, shorten sail, etc, without regard to the seniority of the Commanders or other claims of distinction, in such a manner as shall be found most convenient on either part and may best guard against the hazard of falling on board each other. But when ships are upon different tacks and must come near each other, the ship on the starboard tack is to keep her wind while that on the larboard tack is always to pass to leeward.’

Lord Howe’s rule is, as far as I know, the first time it was decreed that port tack gave way to starboard; a rule which we still follow today. I particularly like the phrase: ‘…other claims of distinction…’.

Presumably, a captain with no handle to his name gave way to an earl!

Colregs update

It is of note that ‘larboard’ was used instead of ‘port’, and steering orders were given in terms of tiller movement.

Thus ‘larboard helm’ would mean a movement of the tiller to port and thus the ship’s head to starboard.

This terminology prevailed long after ships were steered by wheel.

A black cone being shown while a yacht motorsails on the Kiel Canal

Few boats carry a cone when motorsailing

Some readers will remember, as portrayed in the film Titanic, that full starboard helm was ordered in order to turn the ship to port, away from the iceberg on the starboard bow.

It took another 64 years before Trinity House, in 1840, spurred on by the growing number of steamships, drafted more rules.

They were based on common practice:

  • Ships with the wind free should give way to those tacking against the wind. This was a development of Lord Howe’s rule that ships should bear up for each other as shall be found most convenient.
  • Vessels on the port tack should give way to vessels on the starboard tack is a reiteration of Howe’s rules
  • If both ships have the wind free, each should alter to starboard in order to pass port to port is a major change from Howe’s principle that only one vessel should be required to alter course and became known as the ‘Larboard Helm Rule’. It was in force for another 20 years.
  • Steam ships in narrow channels should keep to starboard.

This last rule, which could be considered an extension of the Larboard Helm Rule, was accepted on the Thames, where a ‘keep right’ rule was already in force, but mariners on the Clyde, Mersey and Humber were not impressed as they had followed a ‘keep left’ rule.

The Trinity House rules did not have the force of law behind them until an Act of Parliament was passed in 1847.

About seven years later, in 1854, a further Act confirmed the Larboard Helm Rule, stating that it applied to sailing vessels ‘whether on the port or starboard tacks and whether close hauled or not’. This was fraught with danger.

Not only was it mathematically flawed – the consequence of both ships altering to starboard may just change the geographical position of collision – it was also roundly criticised by a Captain Drew when giving evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1860:

‘Here is a necessity for agreement between both parties as to any danger, utterly unmindful as to differences of opinion: one may think that if each continues his course, there is no longer danger, the other, to be on the safe side, ports his helm [turns to starboard] and causes the collision. The collision then becomes a justification for concluding there was danger.’

Trinity House in London lit up at night

Trinity House in London, where many of the current rules originated

The last sentence sums up the problem and emphasises the point that only one ship should be required to take avoiding action while the other holds her course and speed.

As a result, the British Board of Trade produced a new set of rules which included a provision for steam ships meeting head-on, but nothing about ships crossing.

The logic seems to have been that no rule was better than the potentially lethal Larboard Helm Rule.

The next year, however, an addition was made, following a request by the French, that a vessel with the other on her own starboard side should give way.

Astonishingly, in the light of today’s bureaucratic quagmire, it only took a few years for these new rules to be accepted by over 30 nations, including the United States.

Time for a change?

For more than 100 years the rules remained largely unaltered.

The latest iteration – The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS or ColRegs) – was in 1972.

There have, of course, been further amendments addressing, among other things, the use of radar and conduct in traffic separation schemes (TSS).

So far there is no mention of VHF or AIS for collision avoidance.

The last amendment was in 2003 when reference to Wing-in-Ground (WIG) craft – planes which fly low to the ground to take advantage of ground effect forces – was included, and formalised by the IMO in 2018.

Room for improvement

Clearly without the ColRegs being revised in the last 17 years, much has changed for users of the sea.

Although the basics of boats meeting has not changed, there has been significant development in how we sail, and specifically in the technology we use when underway.

Given these changes, perhaps it is now time for another look at the Rules from a yachting point of view.

There have been several areas I can think of where rules could well be changed and I have no doubt some thorough thinking could bring up many more:

Is the requirement for power to give way to sail outdated?

The days of large square-rigged ships have long gone, and the vast majority of vessels – including Tall Ships – now have reliable, powerful engines and are arguably just as manoeuvrable as their power-driven equivalents.

Why not have a ‘keep right’ rule for all, regardless of their means of propulsion?

Is it time to scrub round the rule about showing a black cone when motor-sailing?

Most yachts don’t bother (no excuse, I know) and, on those that do, it is often hidden from view by the sails.

Does it really serve any useful purpose?

Following the Ouzo tragedy in 2006, consideration might be given to allowing (or even requiring) a white masthead strobe light.

This is presently not allowed by the IRPCS but would undoubtedly increase the chance of being seen by large ships at night.

The ColRegs have served us well and generally continue to do so, but maybe they need a bit of fine tuning to meet modern needs.

A yacht with a white sail sailing past a buoy

The rules currently do well to consider all types of vessels. Credit: Niki Hurrell-Head/Alamy

It is a fine balancing act, of course. All those who use the water need a clear and concise set of rules that do not regularly change.

This lack of significant development helps to keep things easy to understand but this aim for continuity should not be at the cost of providing a reasonable and safe framework for all users of the sea.

Andy Du Port head shot

Andy Du Port is a Yachtmaster Offshore, and formerly an RN specialist navigating officer and RYA Cruising Instructor

Having come up with my list of three things I would change, it does strike me that two of them are a reflection of the way in which many already behave.

If we take, for instance, power giving way to sail, there are few skippers of sailboats who would not give way, should it seem the best option to do so.

The purpose of the ColRegs though is, in part, to provide everyone on the water the ability to understand what action someone else is likely to take.

If you are in a sailing boat and you give way to a powerboat, that might seem the most logical course of action, but assuming the crew of both boats know their ColRegs it will not necessarily be what the powerboat is expecting you to do.

Similarly I have seen many yachts motor-sailing without a cone hoisted. Given this is so prevalent I wonder whether the ColRegs demanding one be shown only serves to confuse.

Of course, poor seamanship from some should not be the key argument in changing the rules of the sea but this one does not seem a very practical answer to the question of whether a yacht is sailing or motoring given the visibility issues, which can be unavoidable.