Regatta Rules Can Trump the COLREGS (Sometimes)


Sailboat racing isn’t for cardiac candidates or simpletons. It’s a tough endeavor played atop a shifting game board with player pieces often valued in the kind of dollars many families call retirement. Maybe it’s for this reason, you skippers and Helly Handsome-wearing owners with the too-bright sneakers, should pay attention to this bit of kit about racecourse liability.

Let’s disabuse the crew of something: you racing your sailboat (even on the Maxi and Classic circuits) rarely trumps (can’t ever use this word anymore without wincing) the International Rules of the Road (“COLREGS”). The COLREGS (and for this column, I’m including in that acronym its companion, the Inland Navigation Rules) are the regulations governing vessel operations on the water – it’s the traffic code of how boats are to behave when interacting. You should have a copy of the COLREGS aboard and when you’re underway the COLREGS should always be top of mind. All that said, there’s First Circuit case law (the federal appellate court covering most New England waters) to the effect that nothing in the COLREGS prevents the parties from entering a regatta with sailing instructions which unambiguously set forth special, binding “rules of the road” meaning the participants waive conflicting COLREGS.

And so the value in this missive is its warning that the COLREGS apply unless you’ve entered a regatta with published sailing instructions set out in the conditions of participation. If you’ve entered such a regatta with its own instructions, a private contract likely results between the participants requiring compliance. For instance, in an 1897 New York Yacht Club race between New London, CT and Newport, RI, two boats collided causing personal injuries and damages. Ultimately, the court held that a yacht club’s racing rule bound a member of the club participating in the club regatta despite a conflicting United States navigational law. And the First Circuit reaffirmed this thinking in 1995 in ruling on the tension between the International Yacht Racing Rules and the COLREGS stating: “by entering a regatta with sailing instructions which unambiguously set forth special, binding ‘rules of the road,’ the participants waive conflicting COLREGS and must sail in accordance with the agreed-upon rules.”

Now, careful here, this salty lawyer reads the case law to mean that only sailboats mutually participating in a regatta may be relieved of obligations under the COLREGS in certain circumstances. That is, the COLREGS would still apply when encountering vessels that aren’t regatta participants. It’s a shared commons and you don’t have the right to ignore the COLREGS when it comes to you overtaking that 27’ Regal toting the family of six.

If this was a musical piece, it’d be about here where there’d be the punch of gated drums with my vocals adding an observation as I’ll do now: don’t limit your thinking to overtaking and crossing situations. Instead, think broadly about these concepts and understand that the regatta rules might also control issues regarding who is at fault and how much they should pay. Yikes, is right. You could be keel blocked from getting into a courtroom and have to settle for the decision of the regatta’s protest committee consisting of ol’ Bourbon Bob and his two sidekicks Eleanor (super sweet, but daft) and Tim (a wee too gung-ho about his club committee position). You get the idea. You see the shape of things. You understand how your marine insurer might take a dim view of paying a claim arising under these circumstances.

The other day a Missouri lawyer and me were on a phone call. He’s got a knack of shucking the jury box of big verdicts and he likes some of the things we do in the courtroom. He got around to telling me why he only calls himself a lawyer. How it is, he said, is a lawyer drinks at a bar and an attorney dines at a tavern and while an attorney will invite you outside to settle an insult, a lawyer breaks a bottle over your head. Of course, that made me chuckle because we’ve always been maritime lawyers.

This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. The facts of each situation matter so don’t rely on what’s written here in making legal decisions. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies and always keep a copy of the COLREGS aboard.

Oh, and a shout-out to my daughter, South, for having just passed her US Sailing Level 1 Instructor course. Nice job (!) and a big thanks to the folks at Sail Newport (where it was hosted) for what sounds like an awesome experience.

Underway and making way. ■

John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or, or visit his website at


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