Collision Regulations in Canada

Put your mouse over each image to view the correct action to avoid a collision.

Both alter course
Meeting head-on: When two boats meet head on, each must alter course to starboard (right) to pass. A sound signal of 1 short blast meaning "I am altering course to starboard" (I intent to pass you on the port side). The other boat repeats the signal to indicate "understood". If you must pass starboard to starboard, indicate your intentions clearly (sound 2 short blasts). (More about signals...)

Give way to the vessel on your starboard
Crossing on a collision course: When on a collision course - the relative direction of the other boat will appear not to change - boat A on the left must give-way or keep clear of boat B. At night, A will see B's red light; B will see A's green light. To avoid collision, A must turn right to pass behind B, slow down, stop or reverse.

Stay clear when passing
Overtaking: When boat A overtakes boat B running in the same direction, A must stay clear of B, while passing on either side. A may use sound signals to indicate passing on B's starboard side, or 2 short blasts to pass on B's port side.

"Here lies the body of Michael O'Day,
who died maintaining the right of way.
He was right, dead right, as he sailed along,
but he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong."

You must use every available means (lookout, radar, radio) to determine whether there is a risk of collision. There is no such thing as a right-of-way in a collision! There is only rules of the road, which all boat operators must follow to avoid a collision.

In general, power-boats must keep clear of sailboats, rowboats and canoes (note exceptions). In a narrow channel, power-boats less than 20 metres (65'), sailboats, and boats fishing must not hamper the safe passage of a vessel that can navigate only inside such a channel. There are additional rules for the Heritage Canals

All vessels over 20 metres ("ships") have the right of passage over all vessels under 20 metres.

Bowfront of the boat
Sternback of the boat
Portleft side of the boat, where the red light is located
Starboardright side of the boat, where the green light is located
Windward side opposite to that on which the mainsail is carried
Port sectorFrom Dead ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the port beam (unbroken arc of 112.5 degrees from the bow) - the red light shows in this sector.
Starboard sectorFrom Dead ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the starboard beam - the green light shows in this sector.

Since Teutonic times boats had a steering oar, or board on the right side of the hull near the stern. To land at a dock one needed to keep the oar free and away from the dock so port was on the opposite side of the STEERING BOARD - Starboard. (Oxford etymological dicionary)

Starboard is generally accepted to be a corruption of steer-board, the board or oar which projected into the sea from the starboard side of old vessels and by which they were steered before the invention of the hanging rudder. (Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea)

Rules of the Road

You must always try to avoid a collision regardless of the "rules of the road". Note: A sailboat under sail and power is considered a powerboat.

  1. All boats must keep out of the way of any vessels fishing with nets, lines, or trawls (they must show appropriate shapes or lights).

  2. Keep out of the way of all ships over 65 feet (20 metres), even if you are sailing.

  3. If a power-boat approaches within your port sector, maintain your course and speed with caution.

  4. If a vessel approaches within your starboard sector, keep out of its way (see sailboat exception), altering course early to indicate you are passing on its stern.

  5. If two vessels approach head-on, they each alter course to starboard and pass port-to-port.
    [Sound signal of one blast indicates altering to starboard. Other vessel returns the same signal to acknowledge, or 5 blasts to indicate a problem. More...]

  6. Any vessel overtaking another must keep clear.
    [This applies to a sailboat passing a powerboat -- it does happen! Sound signals should be used. It is considered good boat ettiquette to slow while the other vessel passes you if that vessel has come down off plane "properly" -- directly aft -- to pass you.]

  7. A power-boat keeps clear of a sailboat under sail.
    [Note that a powerboat passing a sailboat can knock the wind right out of its sails from the wake, causing the boat to change course unexpectedly.]

  8. Give way to boats not under command or restricted in their ability to maneuver (narrow channels, traffic lanes).

  9. Seaplanes must take off and land without causing any danger of collision.

From the Canada Shipping Act: Collision Regulations:
Any action taken to avoid collision shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship.

A shoreline speed zone in most provinces restricts boats to 10 km/h within 30 meters of shore. There are some exemptions but ski boats are exempted only when going perpendicular (directly away) from shore.

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The Rules of the Road began in the days when most ships had square rigs and had trouble sailing to windward. The rules made the downwind boat "give way" to those sailing to windward, the "privileged" boat.

Don't forget that racing rules apply only to the race and the racecourse does not provide special exemption from the international rules. Tack is determined by the mainsail. For example, port tack means that the wind is coming over the port side (left side facing forward) of the boat and the mainsail (or largest foresail) is carried to starboard. The port side is thus the windward side.

  1. Starboard tack rule: A sailboat with the wind on the port side (port tack) shall keep out of the way of a sailboat with the wind on the starboard side (starboard tack).

  2. Windward rule: A sailboat on the same tack but to windward shall keep clear of a sailboat which is to leeward. [This means a boat sailing downwind must alter course to avoid a boat sailing upwind on the same tack. Older books say "a vessel which has the wind aft shall keep out of the way of the other vessel."]

  3. A sailboat on a port tack that sees a sailboat to windward and cannot determine which tack it is on, shall keep clear of the other.

Alter course well in advance so the other vessel knows your intensions. Don't wait till you are on a collision course before giving way! There's no such thing as "right of way" on the water, only "rules". And, don't assume the other vessels knows the rules.

Reference List

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