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

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Rule 14 -- Head-on Situation


INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(a) When two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.

(a) Unless otherwise agreed, when two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.

 

Two vessels are approaching each other rapidly head-on, and there is no way to distinguish one from the other for the purpose of assigning right-of-way. To ensure quick and predictable action, Rule 14 requires both vessels to do the same thing: to turn right. This procedure reduces uncertainty (and delay) and also sets Rule 14 apart from the rules around it. Rules 12, 13, 15, and 18 all assign primary responsibility for taking avoiding action to one vessel, the give-way vessel; Rule 14 assigns responsibility to both.

The Inland version of this Rule has been modified to accommodate the special needs of vessels navigating on meandering rivers, where the downbound vessel may have less ability to maneuver than the vessel it meets head-on traveling upriver. The addition of the words "Unless otherwise agreed" gives the two vessels the option of passing starboard-to-starboard that otherwise would be available only to vessels in narrow channels in certain inland waters [See Rule 9(a)(ii)]

Rule 14 applies only to power-driven vessels meeting head-on with other power-driven vessels. It does not apply if one of the power-driven vessels is not an "ordinary" power-driven vessel but rather is one that is made a stand-on vessel with respect to an ordinary power-driven vessel by Rule 18(a). These other special vessels include vessels not under command, restricted in ability to maneuver, or engaged in fishing that are not required to take action (initially) when meeting an ordinary power-driven vessel head-on. Two sailing vessels meeting head-on are governed by Rule 12.

Rule 14 is easy to follow. Each power-driven vessel approaching another head-on is required to alter her course to starboard for a port-to-port passing--you must turn right, never left. An Inland rule exception permits alterations to port for a starboard-to-starboard passing if both vessels agree in advance.

 

INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(b) Such a situation shall be deemed to exist when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead and by night she could see the masthead lights of the other in a line or nearly in a line and/or both sidelights and by day she observes the corresponding aspect of the other vessel.

(b) Such a situation shall be deemed to exist when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead and by night she could see the masthead lights of the other in a line or nearly in a line or both sidelights and by day she observes the corresponding aspect of the other vessel.

 

Risk of collision must exist for Rule 14 to apply. In theory, two distant vessels approaching nearly head-on may by the time they near each other be so far apart (to one side or the other) that no action is required . In practice, if you are close enough to another vessel to determine that you are meeting nearly head-on, you most likely will also be in risk of collision.

Deciding whether you are in a head-on situation is also straight-forward (no pun intended). Paragraph (a) describes it as a "meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses." Paragraph (b) says what that means. The language is clear--look at the aspect of the other vessel. The decision should not depend on the course made good over the bottom, so do not delay your action until the path of the other vessel has been plotted. The leeway angle can be significant with a strong beam wind or current.

The navigation light technical performance requirements contained in Annex I provide for each sidelight to overlap about two degrees into the other light's horizontal sector. As a result, there will be approximately a four degree sector directly ahead of a vessel in which both sidelights may be seen. Because sidelights will not have exactly the same intensities, and because the human eye is not equally sensitive to red and green light, one sidelight may appear before the other, even if you are in a head-on situation. It is also difficult to see colors at low light intensities--a colored light will look the same as a dim white light. Use your binoculars!

 

INTERNATIONAL

INLAND

(c) When a vessel is in any doubt as to whether such a situation exists she shall assume it does exist and act accordingly.

(c) When a vessel is in any doubt as to whether such a situation exists she shall assume it does exist and act accordingly.

 

Paragraph (c) poses a warning. If it is not plain to you that a crossing situation exists, then take the action required for a head-on situation.

 

INLAND

(d) Notwithstanding paragraph (a) of this rule, a power-driven vessel operating on the Great Lakes, Western Rivers, or waters specified by the Secretary, and proceeding downbound with a following current shall have the right-of-way over an upbound vessel, shall propose the manner of passage, and shall initiate the maneuvering signals prescribed by Rule 34(a)(i), as appropriate.

 

Paragraph (d) extends to all channels the general right-of way given by Inland Rule 9(a)(ii) to vessel in narrow channels in the Great Lakes, western rivers, and waters specified by the Secretary (see Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations--contained in Appendix I of this website). Although this Rule 14(d) exception contains most of the language in the Rule 9(a)(ii) narrow-channel exception, 14(d) does not give the downbound vessel as much control as does 9(a)(ii) for the trickier narrow-channel situation. The 14(d) provision does not require the downbound vessel to propose the place of passage and does not require the upbound vessel to "hold as necessary to permit safe passing." Presumably if those two added precautions were needed for a safe passing, the channel would be narrow enough to bring Rule 9 into effect.

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