Steering and sailing rules

Many collisions between vessels result from a lack of understanding of the rules of safe navigation.

The information on this page is based on the requirements of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 (COLREGs), Marine Safety Act and Marine Safety Regulations.

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Sailing vessels approaching one another

Diagram of sailing vessel approaching each otherDiagram of sailing vessels approaching each other

When each has the wind on the same side, the vessel which is to windward shall keep out of the way of the vessel which is leeward.

When a sailing vessel with the wind on its port side sees another sailing vessel to windward and cannot determine with certainty whether that sailing vessel has the wind on its port or its starboard, it shall keep out of the way of that other sailing vessel.

Power and sail vessels

Diagram of power and sail vessels 

Power-driven vessels shall keep out of the way of sailing vessels and rowing boats;

Power-driven vessels meeting head-on

Diagram of power driven vessels meeting head on 

Power-driven vessels meeting head-on or nearly head-on so as to involve risk of collision shall alter course to starboard so that each may pass on the port side of the other.

Power-driven vessels crossing

Diagram of power driven vessels crossing

When two power-driven vessels are crossing, the vessel with the other on its starboard side shall keep out of the way and avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel. The other vessel must maintain its course and speed until it is apparent that the vessel required to give way is not taking appropriate action.

In narrow channels or channel approaches

Diagram - n-narrow-channels-or-channel-approaches

  • The master of a vessel under way in a channel or fairway must ensure that the vessel keeps to the right of the centre of the channel or fairway.
  • The master of a vessel under way in a channel or fairway must ensure that the vessel keeps out of the way of a vessel that can only safely navigate within the channel or fairway.
  • All vessels in narrow channels shall keep, as far as practicable, to the starboard side of the channel.
  • A vessel engaged in fishing shall not impede the passage of any other vessel navigating within a narrow channel or fairway.
  • A vessel shall not cross a narrow channel or fairway if such crossing impedes the passage of a vessel that can safely navigate only within such a channel or fairway.  The latter vessel may use a permitted sound signal if in doubt as to the intention of the crossing vessel. 
  • Any vessel shall, if the circumstances of the case permit, avoid anchoring in a narrow channel.
  • A sailing vessel and a vessel under 20 m in length shall not impede the passage of any vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.

Overtaking vessels

Diagram of overtaking vessels 

All vessels, whether sail or power, overtaking another vessel when the boats are in sight of one another shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken. If a vessel is coming up with another vessel from any direction, which is more than 22.5 degrees (in the shaded arc of the diagram below) abaft her beam, it shall be deemed to be the overtaking vessel until finally past and clear.

General notes

  • If in doubt, assume that you are the overtaking vessel and keep clear. Alteration of course by either vessel does not relieve the overtaking vessel of the responsibility of keeping clear.
  • If overtaking or approaching a vessel engaged in water-skiing always keep at least 50m from the skier and vessel combination.

Joint emergency action

  • The vessel giving way shall take early and positive avoiding action; make course/speed alterations obvious to the other vessel; avoid crossing ahead of the vessel with right of way; if necessary stop or reverse. 
  • A series of five or more short and rapid blasts on a whistle or horn should be used to indicate that insufficient action is being taken to avoid collision.
  • The vessel with the right of way shall keep its course and speed. It should take avoiding action only if that taken by the giving-way vessel is insufficient. If necessary it should take whatever action is available to keep clear and avoid a collision.
  • If a power-driven vessel is taking action to avoid a collision with another power-driven vessel, it shall, if possible, avoid altering course to port.
  • This action does not relieve the vessel operator of handling obligations.

Restricted visibility

In restricted visibility, reduce to minimum speed. When hearing the fog signal of another vessel ahead, proceed with caution until danger of collision is over or stop until you have ascertained the danger.