What you need to know about the recent change to the US Inland Navigation Rules (published September 2015)
Last year about this time, the USCG changed the US Inland Navigation Rules and their Annexes. These are the rules that apply inside most point-to-point lines across coastal bays or inlets leading to the ocean—notable exceptions are all of Puget Sound, AK, and HI waters. There has been little notice of these changes despite a couple details of interest to sailors. Knowing these details could save you up to one hundred dollars; not knowing them could cost you a couple hundred dollars.
The goal of the changes was to bring the wording and format more in line with that of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) or simply the International Rules. Another goal was to address recommendations made by the Navigation Safety Advisory Council (NAVSAC). Following the recommendations of NAVSAC and other professionals, the proposed changes were published, and the public invited to make comments. Apparently only ten public responses were received, addressing 49 specific points. They were described as mostly favorable, with most addressing the key issue of nomenclature, ie use of “section” versus “part” versus “subpart” versus specific CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) article reference. This aspect has definitely been improved, but anyone looking at this book for the first time would have to wonder what it looked like before improvement.
In a sense with the new handbook content and ubiquitous reference to CFR article numbers, the book itself looks more complex now than it was. But not to worry about that; there are only 18 half pages of content we need to know to be safe in most encounters, namely the Steering and Sailing Rules—though needless to say, proper identification of lights and sounds could also be crucial at other times.
WING IN GROUND (WIG) CRAFT
First the easy part, which does not affect sailors unless they are testing for a USCG license. WIG craft rules are now all the same for Inland and International waters. WIG rules used to apply only to International Waters, so this must be looking ahead to seeing more of these “vessels” here. These strange boats that can fly are more popular in Asia and Europe than in the US.
RULE 1(g) ON CARRYING A COPY OF THE RULES
Next there was a proposed change that they did not make, but the official discussion of the decision brings up several interesting points. The USCG considered, and then rejected, a NAVSAC proposal to require vessels down to 16 ft overall length to carry a copy of the Rules on board. At present only (self-propelled) vessels of 39 ft or longer are required to carry “a copy of the Rules for ready reference” on Inland waters. The argument for smaller motorboats and sailboats to carry the rules was the obvious one that they also must obey the Rules; the argument against it that prevailed was “lack of quantifiable benefits to justify a high regulatory burden on recreational vessels”. They stated that six and a half million vessels were within this (39 ft to 16 ft) category and they listed the GPO Nav Rules book price at $23, and then they multiplied the two to get what was described as “unnecessarily costly” boater expense of 150 million dollars. (With the actual street price of $10, the actual cost to boaters would be more like one six-pack of beer in the lifetime of each of these boats.)
They went on to point out that the skippers of only 14 percent of boating accidents (in this vessel category) that led to a death had ever taken any navigation training, and only nine percent of those were sanctioned courses, and noted that fatal accident statistics have gone down as sanctioned training has gone up over the years. Thus they argued that more navigation training is more important than requiring Rules carriage.
This is obviously true, but I must add that the Nav Rules were not designed to prevent fatal accidents, but to prevent collisions, and I state again our premise that the Navigation Rules is the most important book in navigation. They also failed to point out that every collision (between vessels of any size) involves the violation of at least one of the Rules by both vessels involved—in other words, it is statistically impossible to have a collision if you obey all the Rules, regardless of what the other guy does. But you have to know the rules on what to do when he does not obey the Rules.
I agree that it does not make practical sense to extend the carriage Rule to smaller vessels. Furthermore, it does not matter; the Rules must be obeyed by all vessels, regardless of having a copy on board, and in fact regardless of even having read them. The requirement for larger vessels (>39ft) on Inland Waters to carry the Rules at least gives mariners a chance to look up relevant rules after the fact as a means of ongoing education. There will always be encounters, lights, or sounds that we wish we knew better at the time. Why there is no similar rule in the COLREGS is not a matter of US law nor control. The international consensus must be that International Rule 1(a) that you must obey the Rules is enough to go with. There are IMO regulations that all commercial vessels must carry a copy of the Rules, but that is independent of the Rules themselves.
With all that said, if you did not know about this Rule, do not feel too bad. It was always the law, but it was buried in Annex V, §88.05. Now with the new changes it is up front in Inland Rule 1(g).
To me the most interesting part of the discussion of the carriage requirement included the phrase “electronic copy,” but only as an afterthought, in an awkward sentence structure, without any implied price to that option, which would have befuddled their cost analysis. In short, a “copy of the rules for ready reference” could indeed be an electronic copy, and the USCG offers a free ebook copy online (pdf) that would run quite well in smart phones or tablets. Furthermore, in another part of the USCG website we find this direct statement:
“Electronic copies of the Navigation Rules are acceptable, however, only if they are currently corrected to the latest Notice to Mariners and can be made available for ready reference. The unwritten rule of thumb: ‘readily’ means that you are able to avail yourself of a Rule(s) within 2 minutes of the need to do so.”
Two minutes is a cake walk with a well designed ebook version (ie Starpath Pocket NavRules) and even trivial with the USCG PDF version that you mail to yourself and open in your phone. Save it, practice once or twice looking up a rule, and you are always legal.
RULE 8(a)—ACTION TO AVOID COLLISION
This rule is the fundamental description of how to maneuver to avoid a collision. It was always intended to be the same in both Inland and International rules, and it remains so, but there was uncertainty in the wording of the Inland Rules. Now the wording is the same in both International and Inland rules to read (italics and underline added):
Rule 8(a) Any action taken to avoid collision shall be taken in accordance with Rules 4-19 and shall if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship.
They added the precedence statement (shown here underlined) to the inland rule. Also interesting, though not part of the rule itself, this USCG document also effectively defined “in accordance with” by adding this sentence to their description of the rule change: “It is our intent that Rule 8(a) should be taken with full knowledge and compliance with Rules 4–19” (italics added).
RULE 33—EQUIPMENT FOR SOUND SOUND SIGNALS
In the previous version for Inland Rule 33(a), it was required to carry a whistle and a bell for vessels ≥ 12m (39 ft), but the International Rules required the bell only for vessels ≥ 20m (65 ft). The new inland rule now matches the International rule, so you do not need a bell on board till 65 ft or longer—so off to the swap meets with these, or make dinner bells at home. A brass bell that meets USCG requirements can easily cost $100.
This rule change affects several of the USCG’s trickier license exam questions, so keep in mind an older data set of these questions may now have the wrong answer. The new dataset of Rules questions online have these answers changed.
RULE 35—SOUND SIGNALS IN RESTRICTED VISIBILITY
Rule 35(g) and 35(h) in both International and Inland rules calls for ringing a bell when anchored or aground in restricted visibility. The rules do not specify vessel lengths. In the old inland rule you had to ring a bell for 12 to 20m, now you don’t, because you don’t have to have a bell at all. Now you are forgiven for all the times you were anchored in the fog and did not ring your bell!
RULE 25—(LIGHTS ON) SAILING VESSELS UNDERWAY AND VESSELS UNDER OARS
Here we have another seemingly very simple Inland Rule change that has notable implications to sailors of smaller boats, or dinghy rowers running back and forth to larger boats. It is also notable in that it goes contrary to the harmonizing goal of the changes in that it willfully makes a US Inland Rule different from the corresponding International Rule that was previously the same.
The new US Inland Rule reads (with underline and italics added):
Rule 25 (d) (i) A sailing vessel of less than seven meters in length shall, if practicable, exhibit the lights prescribed in Rule 25(a) or (b), but if she does not, she shall exhibit an all around white light or have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.
The lights of 25(a) referred to are sidelights and a sternlight; the lights of 25(b) are a tricolor on the masthead. They have added the all-round white light option to the Inland Rule, otherwise the two rules would be identical.
Now inland-waters boats, under sail or being rowed, that are less than 23 ft (7 m) long can run with a steady, all-round white light. If you choose that option, it definitely means only the all-round white light; no other lights allowed.
For many sailboats (again <23ft) you can now sail at night running your anchor light from the masthead—but turn your sidelights off if you have them. The anchor light was used by some sailboats in the past, but it was not legal then (sidelights and a masthead light looks like a power-driven vessel). Those who knew that may have thought it was better seen than legal, but just like the other common sailboat lighting error of running deck lights and tri-color (also illegal) these lights can get fined.
I know of a case from many years ago where a fine for running both tricolor and deck lights was $50. Modern exposure is higher: “A civil penalty of up to $500 may be imposed by the Coast Guard for failure to comply with equipment requirements…” from a USCG Special Notices to Mariners. Frankly, it is unlikely to be fined for just wrong lights, but in the event of a collision at night, illegal lights guarantees you a large part of the liability, regardless of who was at fault.
Tech developments that may have impacted this decision are bright LED lights, which even the smallest boat can run for long periods on a small battery. This new rule also now makes the kayaker with a white light on his hat legal as well. Granted, you will look like a sternlight, but in principle that would not be a problem; Anyone approaching a sternlight should go around it.
At this point we can add that one of the USCG’s stated motivations of the changes (“more public awareness”) has just been achieved—you have read an article on the US Inland Rules! To know where they apply, check 33 CFR Part 80, in the back of the new Navigation Rules Handbook.