Handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road by Llana & Wisneskey

Home - Table of Contents

A Short History of the Rules


Until the 1800s, wooden sailing ships were so slow that there was no need for much in the way of navigation rules. With the advent of steel vessels propelled by machinery, collisions became more frequent; subsequent loss of life and cargo set the stage for the enactment of such rules.

In the United States the Act of 1838 required steamboats running between sunset and sunrise to carry one or more signal lights; color, visibility, and location were not addressed.

Overseas an effort by London Trinity House prompted Parliament to enact the Steam Navigation Act of 1846, which required that steam vessels pass port-to-port, that crossing vessels make course alterations to the starboard, and that sailing vessels on the port tack give way to vessels on the starboard tack.

In 1848 the United Kingdom further issued regulations requiring steam vessels to display red and green sidelights as well as a white masthead light.

A year later the U.S. Congress extended the light requirements to sailing vessels on U.S. waters.

In 1858, in separate actions, English and U.S. flag vessels were given procedures for the use of whistle and fog signals.

In 1863 the British, in consultation with the French, implemented new and more comprehensive navigation rules. These rules, known as the Articles, were sent to other maritime countries with the idea of establishing consistent and uniform regulations having the force of international maritime law. The U.S. and more than 30 other countries adopted these rules, with President Lincoln signing the new law in 1864.

Some provisions of these first international rules were that the overtaking vessel was required to stay out of the way of the overtaken vessel, that the stand-on vessel was required to maintain its course only, and that the only whistle signal prescribed was for a one-minute interval sounding for fog or poor visibility.

In 1880 the "1863" Articles were supplemented by whistle signals to indicate actions taken to avoid collisions.

In 1884 a new set of international regulations was implemented. There were not many changes to the sailing and steering rules, but their applicability was limited to the high seas and coastal waters. A distinction was now being made between inland rules and international rules.

In 1889 the United States convened the first International Maritime Conference to consider regulations for preventing collisions, held in Washington, D.C. The resulting Washington Conference rules were adopted by the United States in 1890 and became effective in 1897. Significant developments in this new body of rules included a requirement for stand-on vessels to maintain speed as well as course, for steamships to carry a second masthead light, for the give-way vessel not to cross ahead of the stand-on vessel, and for the use of whistle signals to indicate course changes.

In February of 1894 Congress enacted navigation rules for the Great Lakes. All previously implemented inland navigation and pilot rules were kept in force for waters other than the Great Lakes. The revision also provided the authority for lines to divide the high seas from rivers, harbors, and inland waters.

In June of 1897, just prior to the July 1 effective date for the Washington Conference international rules, Congress excepted the Great Lakes , the Red River of the North, and waters emptying into the Gulf of Mexico from inland waters rules. This meant that there were now four sets of statutory rules and three sets of pilot rules. Each governed a separate area: inland, Great Lakes, western rivers, and international. Only the international rules were not supplemented by separate pilot rules.

Rule change activity slowed after the adoption of the Washington Conference rules. The 1910 Brussels Maritime Conference made some minor changes to the international rules. A 1929 International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) proposed a few rule changes that were never ratified. The recommendation that the direction of a turn be referenced by the rudder rather than the direction of the helm or tiller was informally agreed by all maritime nations in 1935.

Domestically, the Motorboat Act of 25 April 1940 specified the requirements for lights, whistles, and bells by powered vessels sixty-five feet in length or less, except tug and towboats, on U.S. navigable waters. This act was revised in 1956. In 1948 Public Law 80-544 revised the Inland and Western Rivers rules.

The international 1948 Safety of Life at Sea Conference recommended a mandatory second masthead light for power-driven vessels over 150 feet in length, a fixed sternlight for almost all vessels, the use of five short and rapid blasts as a wake-up signal, and formalized orders for the helmsman. The conference also recognized the use of radar but only to the extent that it did not relieve users from complying with any of the rules. It took four years for the participants to ratify the conference recommendations, and they became effective on 1 January 1954.

In 1960 another SOLAS meeting was held in London. Its recommendations (effective on 1 September 1965) included a paragraph requiring early and substantial action to avoid a close-quarters situation with a vessel detected forward of the beam in restricted visibility.

During this period the U.S. maritime authorities were making a concerted effort to unify our domestic navigation rules. A draft set of unified rules was sent to Congress in 1968; no action was taken, however, because by then preparatory conferences leading to a major revision of the international rules had begun.

The outcome of these conferences was a completely reorganized and substantially modified set of navigation rules. These new rules were called the 1972 International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). The drafters had, in one broad stroke, brought the navigation rules into the twentieth century, applying modern and evolving technology to the best of traditional practices.

During the same year a U.S. Federal advisory committee of twenty members was created to unify and update the several sets of U.S. domestic navigation rules, and to bring them into the closest possible agreement with the new International Rules.

With the entry into force of the 72 COLREGS on 15 July 1977, this activity increased. In working to find one set of rules that could be applied on high seas as well as on internal U.S. waters, the U.S. Coast Guard took an active role in seeking amendments to the COLREGS that would make the international rules more acceptable for our own internal waters, including the Great Lakes. Canadian authorities participated in our domestic unification efforts as well and were instrumental in unifying the navigation rules used on both sides of the border in the Great Lakes.

On 24 December 1980, the Inland Navigational Rules Act of 1980 was enacted and a year later, fifty-six amendments to the 72 COLREGS were adopted. The Inland Navigational Rules Act superceded the old inland rules, western rivers rules, the Great Lakes rules, their respective pilot rules, and parts of the Motorboat Act of 1940. The new Inland Rules paralleled the International Rules, in great part word-for-word.

The new unified rules became effective on all U.S. inland waters except the Great Lakes on 24 December 1981 and on the Great Lakes on 1 March 1983, to match the effective date of Canada's revised rules.

The amendments to the COLREGS became effective on 1 June 1983 and, with the exception of small-craft lighting provisions, were mostly editorial.

On 28 September 1988, an amendment (Public Law 100-448) to the U.S. Inland Rules was enacted that made Inland Rules 3(g)(v), 27(b), and 27(f) consistent with the first set of International Rules amendments.

Separate changes to the Inland Rules were made on 30 October 1984 by Public Law 98-557 -- primarily the addition of Rules 14(d), a fourth western rivers provision.

The 72 COLREGS were changes a second time by nine amendments that came into force on 19 November 1989. The major change was the addition of new International Rule 8(f) explaining rights and obligations between vessels in "shall not impede" situations. The Coast Guard issued regulatory amendments to the Inland Rule technical annexes early in 1990 to reflect the changes to the International Rule annex.

Congress passed legislation later in 1990 amending Inland Rules 1(e) and 8(f) to match the International Rule changes. The other International Rule amendments (dealing with traffic separation schemes and vessels constrained by draft) had no direct counterpart in the Inland Rules.

In 1989 the International Maritime Organization adopted a third set of amendments to the International Rules. This time there was just one amendment--to Rule 10(d)--which clarified the use of inshore traffic zones. The amendment entered into force on 19 April 1991. In 1992 the change was incorporated into the Inland Rules when the International Rule 10 (Traffic Separation Schemes) language in its entirety replaced the existing Inland Rule 10. Prior to this time, the Inland Rule 10 was a simple incorporation by reference of the U.S. Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) regulations. Adoption of the international language anticipated establishment of traffic separation schemes in U.S. inland waters.

Other minor amendments to the International Rules were adopted during the early 1990s, the latest becoming effective in November 1995. Most of these concerned technical rules for navigation lights--finding solutions to problems encountered by certain types of vessels; others clarified language; and one accommodated new technology--radar transponders in survival craft.

While 1990s changes made to the International Rules were also adopted for the Inland Rules, there were yet other amendments to the Inland Rules (the latest batch became effective March 1998). These additional Inland amendments, however, also primarily concerned navigation lights and clarifications to ambiguous language.

The 1990s brought essentially no changes to the steering and sailing rules. But as long as technology and commerce continue to evolve (and perhaps as long as there are navigation authorities and advisory committees), the new millenium will probably bring the same kind of minor tinkering to the Rules that we've seen in the last decade of the old millenium.