VHF use under COLREGS: What you don’t know could hurt you

Courtesy Kees Torn/Flickr
Pick up your VHF radio, hail another ship and make a meeting arrangement in international waters? You’ve just violated COLREGS. “Vessels involved in a risk of collision are to take specific actions as delineated (in COLREGS) without deviating by proposing arrangements,” the author says.

You are on a vessel conducting an eastbound Atlantic crossing on a clear day with a razor-sharp horizon and the bluest of waters when you sight a meeting vessel on a reciprocal course with a small CPA (closest point of approach) five miles off. You pick up your bridge-to-bridge VHF radio and hail the other vessel. After shifting to a working channel, you then propose a port-to-port meeting arrangement. The meeting vessel concurs with your arrangement. You perform your maneuver.

You are on a vessel inbound for New York making your approach to the Ambrose Channel and will meet an outbound vessel on a reciprocal course at buoys 1 and 2. You pick up the VHF radio, now monitoring the working channel, and hail the other vessel. You propose a port-to-port meeting arrangement. The meeting vessel concurs with your proposed arrangement. You perform your maneuver.

You are on a westbound vessel in the Pacific about midway between Long Beach and Pearl Harbor on a clear night with a full moon when you encounter the lights of a meeting vessel on a reciprocal course, but you will meet and pass each other with one-mile lateral separation. You pick up your VHF radio and hail the other vessel. After shifting to a working channel, you then propose a starboard-to-starboard meeting arrangement due to the fact you will meet with more than a mile between the other vessel on your current course. The meeting vessel concurs with your arrangement. You perform your maneuver.

You are the stand-on vessel in open ocean and sight a vessel crossing from port to starboard with a small CPA about seven miles off. You pick up your VHF radio and hail the other vessel. After shifting to a working channel, you propose an arrangement in hailing, “What are your intentions?” The crossing vessel responds and an arrangement is both proposed and agreed upon. The crossing vessel, being the give-way vessel, alters course as per your arrangement. You are not happy with the size of the CPA in which the give-way vessel will cross your stern, so you pick up your VHF and hail, “Please increase your CPA to no closer than two miles to my vessel.”

The one similarity in all four of these scenarios is the fact, in each instance, the mariner has violated COLREGS. For those unaware, COLREGS is the acronym for the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972, now under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Fifty-five amendments were applied in 1983 and nine more in 1989. Simply, COLREGS are the international navigation rules applicable outside of established navigational lines of demarcation that all ships must follow.

In examining the four scenarios, note the violations to COLREGS:

• First, in all of the cases, the mariner violated the rules by making an arrangement, with the key word being “arrangement.” Straightforwardly, as per COLREGS Rules 13-16, vessels involved in a risk of collision are to take specific actions as delineated without deviating by proposing arrangements. For vessels meeting on reciprocal courses, each shall alter its course to starboard and pass on the port side of the other. COLREGS does not permit vessels to meet starboard to starboard. For vessels crossing, the vessel that has the other on its own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel. Clearly, COLREGS is neither ambiguous nor obscure. However, in U.S. Inland Rule 14, for example, vessels are required to make such arrangements, with the key phrase “unless otherwise agreed.”

• Second, there is no mention of VHF usage in COLREGS. Nonetheless, in U.S. Inland Rules Chapter 34, it is noted that vessels may use VHF radio to make vessel interaction arrangements to avoid the risk of collision.

• Third, recall that COLREGS apply on waters outside of established navigational lines of demarcation. In the Ambrose Channel scenario, the line of demarcation runs through the channel at buoys 5 and 6. That means vessels meeting at buoys 1 and 2 are outside the line and COLREGS apply.

• The fourth violation deals with the scenario in which two vessels are meeting with one mile of separation and no risk of collision. As in all cases, there must be a risk of collision or an assumption of risk of collision; if not, the two vessels could have easily passed at one mile starboard to starboard. If either vessel in question assumed a risk of collision, in accordance with COLREGS it would commence altering its course to starboard. COLREGS would then dictate the other vessel to alter its course to starboard and meet port to port. Again, no ambiguity, no arrangements.

• Fifth, the prudent mariner should use extreme caution when hailing, “What are your intentions?” Those four words certainly can be construed as a request for a proposed agreement.

• Finally, COLREGS do not mention minimum CPAs for the give-way vessel; rather, the requirement is for the give-way vessel to keep out of the way of another vessel and take early and substantial action to keep well clear. If the stand-on vessel’s watch officer is not comfortable with the give-way vessel’s maneuver, he should sound the danger signal and notify his ship’s master, who then may take avoiding action. At the point of extremis, or when action by the give-way vessel alone will not prevent a collision, the stand-on vessel shall take action.

Now many may argue that COLREGS Rule 2 permits the use of VHF to make arrangements, even going so far as to arrange a meeting starboard to starboard. Citing Rule 2, the Rule of Responsibility, some contend they may depart from COLREGS if necessary to avoid immediate danger. Although well intended, they neglect to fully comprehend the first part of Rule 2, which states, “nothing in these rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master or crew thereof from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen.” Specifically, look to COLREGS and if they are patently clear, tread lightly in deviating from them, or you may wind up sitting at the end of a long green table being questioned by people with brass and ribbons on their chests.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of understanding or lack of knowledge of COLREGS among many mariners today. There are several factors involved. One is that the United States is the only signatory country with codified inland navigational rules, many of which are quite similar to COLREGS, which may inadvertently cause confusion with the international rules. COLREGS and U.S. Inland Rules 13-16 and 34 are analogous to the point of three words, “unless otherwise agreed,” thus contributing to a propensity to muddle the two sets of regulations. In addition, with the finite and readily available U.S. Coast Guard question bank for its multiple-choice tests, repetitive recollection drills — rather than understanding and learning COLREGS — has become the norm. As the cycle continues, some cadets return from Sea Year confounded between COLREGS and the U.S. Inland Rules.

Generally, mariners from the United Kingdom are regarded as the most disciplined when it comes to COLREGS and VHF usage. This may be due to their fastidious COLREGS and VHF training. Similarly, the way forward in trying to rectify problems in the U.S. regarding the proper use of VHF and COLREGS starts with the educators and training.

In the not-too-distant past, navigation law professors such as Capt. Doug Hard from Kings Point and the late Capt. Bill Sembler from Fort Schuyler developed challenging exams covering both rules. Sembler even went as far as to require each student to memorize each rule word for word. Knowing each word would certainly help in identifying a three-word phrase that differentiates COLREGS from the U.S. Inland Rules. However, probably the best method to train mariners about the correct use and applicability of COLREGS is a bridge resource management (BRM) course. This class integrates COLREGS exercises with real-life scenarios in a full bridge mission simulator. Each of the four scenarios previously mentioned were developed from actual BRM exercises. Having students experience these situations firsthand in a simulator exposes them to correct COLREGS and VHF usage and application, with the ultimate goal of collision avoidance and prudent seamanship.

Capt. Sean P. Tortora, USMS, is a master mariner with 25 years of sea experience. He currently serves as an associate professor in the Department of Marine Transportation at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and is the author of Study Guide for Marine Fire Prevention, Firefighting, and Fire Safety, published by Cornell Maritime Press. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and not those of the USMMA, the Maritime Administration, Department of Transportation or U.S. government.

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