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Good seamanship and liability

On the road we call them right of way rules, but on the water we speak of swerve rules. As a skipper, you are obliged to do everything you can to prevent a collision. That is called good seamanship. Just as in road traffic (the WVW), on the water we must adhere to the rules of the Inland Waterways Police Regulations (BPR). If you don’t, you are in principle liable for damage. And vice versa: if I do everything by the book, am I covered? No. Unlike on the road, there is a very important, so-called ‘open standard’ on the water: good seamanship.

If you follow the rules, there will usually be good seamanship. The basic rules of evasion are simple: wind gives way to leeward; engine gives way to muscle and engine gives way to sail. More importantly, you may have the right of way, but you should never take it. Good seamanship also means that you don’t want to get into a “last minute” situation. Looking out and assessing what other water users are doing is mandatory and can prevent many annoyances. Sometimes you can prevent a ‘just not’ situation by just luffing up, taking your foot off the accelerator or, on the contrary, accelerating. In fact, you are a good sailor when you do not let it come down to the rules of right of way.

Crossing ships.
The rules of the road are particularly important when ships cross each other. A classic example: A ship sails on the starboard bank on the main waterway and another ship comes from the starboard side of a secondary waterway. The main rule is clear: the ship that is sailing on the starboard bank on the main water has right of way over intersecting ships. But perhaps the skipper does not know the rules or has not looked at the chart? The ship that has right of way may be expected here to take measures to prevent a collision. Failure to do so certainly does not mean that all damage will be borne by the crossing ship.

A striking example is a past collision near Terneuzen. The traffic centre had informed both ships of the presence of another ship on a crossing course, but neither took up VHF radio contact with the other. Although one ship had made a mistake in failing to give way, the court ruled that the ship that took right of way was also jointly liable for the damage (in a 75-25 percent split). Some of the considerations of the Dutch Maritime Court were: “Keeping track of positions is a matter of good seamanship”, “There was no question of voyage preparation” and “The changes of course at this stage do not appear to have been prompted by good seamanship.” A speedboat skipper who failed to take into account that his stern wave could cause problems for another vessel was also held liable. In sailing competitions, the competition rules are leading. In almost all races on public waters (which are not exclusively demarcated) the BPR remains in force. So you should always apply good seamanship, even though it might cost you a higher place or even victory.

Precautions (Art. 1.04):
“The skipper must, even in the absence of explicit regulations in these regulations, take all precautions required by good seamanship or by the circumstances in which the vessel or convoy is located, in order to avoid in particular: endangering the lives of persons; causing damage to other vessels or to floating objects, or to banks or to works and facilities of any kind located in the waterway or on its banks; endangering the safety or smooth running of navigation.” Deviation from the regulations (Art. 1.05) “The skipper must deviate from the provisions of these regulations in the interest of safety or good order of navigation (…) according to good seamanship.”

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