May 5, 2021

Sorry, But Your Regatta Doesn’t have the Right of Way


One Professional Captain’s take on Sailing Events and Regattas


If you sail, organize or otherwise participate in regattas, you need this information. You might not want to hear it, but you need it. 

I respect the sail racing community and believe it is time for all boaters to understand the 38 nautical Rules of the Road. Powerboats are required to follow all 38 rules, as are sailboats. Unless you are downbound in the Mississippi or Western Rivers, no boat has the “right of way” over another. 

I know this to be true from my 28 years working for Safe/Sea responding to calls for help and towing boats on Narragansett Bay. As the local TowBoatUS representative they run six vessels covering a roughly 30-mile radius from Beavertail Light. 

I started working for Safe/Sea in high school. Fast forward three decades with 18 years as owner/operator of Confident Captain; a successful maritime training facility based in Newport, RI. In that span I earned a Marine Affairs degree at URI and spent years on tug boats moving petroleum barges along the East Coast. I cherry-picked sailboat gigs and sail raced out of Wickford Harbor. In 2020, I founded the Professional Captains Association (procaptains.org). 

Amongst all of that and up until 2017, I covered shifts at Safe/Sea. I cannot tell you how many boats I have towed, salvaged and floated. My educated guess puts it around 3,500. Many readers may not realize that Safe/Sea boats are designed to be operated single handed. Suffice it to say a towboat operator can have their hands full.

No matter how preoccupied I might have been in towing, I always took the long way around a regatta. The towboats I ran were comparatively small, though powerful. They needed to be, because the job itself is big and is no joke. I got paid to get someone out of trouble and home safely. Sometimes I dealt with pretty big problems! I took the job and my client’s safety seriously. I was humbled by the power of nature and by the results of boaters’ bad decisions.  

On occasion, though admittedly not often now that I have two small children, I race sailboats for fun. I own a sailboat and the family plays on it whenever possible. My eldest is in a sailing program and I look forward to racing with my kids some day. I understand the joy and importance of a regatta. 

I would call the following a “sea story,” but in fact it is a true story. My intention is to provide an anecdote that illustrates some largely misunderstood Rules of the Road. 

A few summers ago I was towing a 26-foot sport cruiser up a Narragansett Bay tributary with a shipping lane running NE/SW. I didn’t have to be in the shipping lane, but I was better off there. The water was deep enough for other small craft, and it was the shortest and easiest route. I was also compelled to use it because my clients were paying by the hour. However, as in times prior, I was prepared to leave the channel and go around a regatta if needed. 

Looking ahead about two miles up the channel I could see a large regatta. I estimated over 75 boats with multiple fleets, all of whom seemed to be racing a windward/leeward course back-and-forth across the shipping lane. From what I could tell at a distance, the windward mark was well north of the channel, which would result in a significant deviation from my desired route. However, I still could not see the windward mark. 

The Challenge: My towboat was too far away to see the windward mark and therefore confidently adjust my route in advance.  

The Professional Solution: Call the Race Committee (RC) and ask for the windward mark’s position so I could calculate a safe alternative route for my tow. 

I called the RC boat multiple times on Channel 16. The committee boat did not respond to my call on the International Hailing and Distress Channel, which is a well-known requirement of keeping a proper lookout. 

Recommendation to RCs and Sailors: Read “Rule 5” of the COLREGS and US Inland Rules of the Road. 

As my professional captain friends know, at this point I had to make a decision, yet did not have all of the information needed to do so. Sadly, that is a song sung too often on commercial boats.

Studying the regatta, I tried to make sense of the various boats. Tension was getting higher and my questions more intense. “How many God-Da**ed boats were there?” “Where the hell is that windward mark?” And mostly, “Why doesn’t the RC boat answer their radio?”

As I proceeded up the channel, likely less than a mile from the first fleet, I still didn’t have answers to critical questions, yet needed to make a decision with what I had. 

Sidebar #1: Professional boat captains have to make decisions based on safety. Without all the required information, their decisions must consider worst-case scenarios and so become conservative, and likely not regatta-friendly. 

At this point, I boiled the solution down to two options:

  1. I could head toward the assumed windward mark position. However, without proper intel from the RC, I had no idea where that route might actually lead. It is irresponsible to tow a vessel commercially without a safe route. Was there going to be enough navigable water around the windward mark for me to get all 200 feet of boat and tow around the regatta perimeter? 

This option could only work if: 

  1. The mark was in a spot that I could navigate safely.
  2. Every boat sailed clean around the windward mark while I was passing it

My confidence in those variables on a busy weekend in Narragansett Bay was low. 

  1. Alternatively, I could stay in the channel and hope not to cut off too many of the boats sailing back and forth across the channel. Frankly, this was not the safest solution either. At least staying in the channel gave me a better chance of “communicating” my intent and purpose as a towboat. Additionally, it gave me a known safe navigation route. It also gave me a leg to stand on if something went wrong. If I left the channel, got into a collision and there was an investigation, it would not take long for somebody to ask, “Why weren’t you in the channel?.” From the handful of expert witness testimonies I have given, I can assure you basics like this take center stage. 

Sidebar #2: Whenever making hard decisions regarding safety, I am acutely aware of our litigious society. I forever ask myself, “What would you say in the courtroom, Kent?” and, “What would they ask you?”

The primary importance of the channel is its depth. Additionally, like a Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), it promotes the safe flow of vessel traffic. Deviating from that channel (though not expressly written under rule 9) increases “head-scratching” among other boats and decreases everyone’s decision-making ability.

In a final attempt, I called the RC again, even trying the working channels. Crickets.

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!”  So goes the supposed inscription at the entrance to Hell. I sympathized as I slowed down under angry stares from some of the slower boats in the fleet. If regatta organizers had done their job, I would not have been there. 

I proceeded, and for the most part, things were not going badly. Most boats did not need to adjust course around me. Then the faster fleet rounded the windward mark (that I could finally see) and started heading downwind back towards the channel. It was going to be close, but by picking up the pace I saw that I could stay out of their way. 

At this point, a fairly nondescript white sailboat was reaching across the channel. He saw me and perhaps thought I needed a lesson in seamanship, so he sailed in front of me to “slow me down.” He blocked my route and pointed towards the fleet coming downwind, as if I didn’t see the mass of spinnakers heading my way. I had to slow to bare-steerageway. Slowed down as I was, I could no longer stay out of the way of the downwind fleet. No doubt I screwed up the positioning of the leaders and potentially the whole fleet, as a result of that one boat’s actions.

Sidebar #3: Rule 9 lists four vessels that must not impede the passage of a vessel that is required to stay in a channel for safe operation. One of those vessels listed is a sailing vessel. This sailboat skipper was in clear violation of the rules. 

Sidebar #4: Do not sail in front of other boats. It is dangerous to do so.

After returning my tow safely, I wanted to get ahead of the possible consequences of the incident and called the Safe/Sea Operations Manager. I told him what had happened. He responded with a single question, “Were you in violation of the rules?” to which I easily said, “No.” He responded, “Then I don’t mind,” and that was the end of the story. 

Lessons Learned?

I’d love to say there were lessons learned here, but because no one was forced to what we dubbed at Confident Captain as “the learning table,” there were none. The “learning table” is only set when an accident occurs, someone is hurt, or an authority is involved. In this case, things got ugly, but I played my “A game” and compensated for the actions of others. 

The Rules of the Road never use the term “Right of Way” for good reason. The writers knew the wording would propagate a false sense of entitlement aboard the “stand-on” vessel. 

Rule 18 lists the Responsibilities Between Vessels, more commonly called “the pecking order.” A sailboat is just above a powerboat, but under a vessel fishing, a vessel Restricted in Ability to Maneuver, and so on. More importantly, there are 17 rules preceding the pecking order. They pertain to Good Seamanship, Proper Lookout, Safe Speed, Narrow Channels, Risk of Collision, Action to Avoid a Collision, and many more!

We have a saying at Confident Captain, “If you don’t follow rules 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9, you won’t live long enough to follow rule 18 anyway!” 

For more information on the Rules of the Road, visit the US Coast Guard Navigation Center Website. Or, come by and take a look at some of the previously recorded, free-of-charge seminars available at procaptains.org. 

Capt. Kent Dresser is the President of Confident Captain as well as the President and Founder of the Professional Captains Association. He holds a USCG Master of Towing Vessels and a 200GT Master, an RYA Yachtmaster Sail and Power as well as an RYA  Yachtmaster Instructor certification. He has 31 years of experience in the Rhode Island marine industry. He can be reached at Kent@procaptains.org