The rule of the road told in verses

SS Metapan sunk by the SS Iowan

SS Metapan sunk by a collision withthe SS Iowan; image from Popular Mechanics magazine published in 1915. Image placed on the Wikimedia by Pmcyclist


I found the following useful navigation rhymes in a book that Mike Smylie was kind enough to give me at the weekend – it previously belonged to his father. I’ve heard them before, notably from old Sam Larner, but haven’t seen them printed out. And as a bonus they came with some extra verses relating to sailing vessels.

The book is titled The Yachtsman’s Week End Book, written by John Irving and Douglas Service, and I think it’s a gem because of the way it opens a window into the different attitudes of the past. For example I particularly liked this quotation: ‘Four things shalt thou not see aboard a yacht for its comfort – a cow, a wheelbarrow, and umbrella and a naval officer.’

But back to the rhymes – they may be wrong in the current age, so please don’t take them as gospel. I can’t accept responsibility if you do!

Two steamships meeting:

When both lights you see ahead

Starboard wheel and show your red

Two steamships passing:

Green to green or red to red

Perfect safety, go ahead

Two steamships crossing:

If to your starboard red appear

It is your duty to keep clear

To act as judgement says is proper

To port or starboard, back or stop her

But when upon your port is seen

A steamer’s starboard light of green

There’s not much for you to do

For green to port keeps clear of you

However, all ships must keep a look-out and steamships must stop and go astern if necessary:

Both in safety and in doubt

Always keep a good look-out

In danger with no room to turn

Ease her, stop her, go astern

But these rules don’t work so well for sailing vessels. Instead, the following rhyme is proposed:

Now those four rules we all must note

Are no use in a sailing boat

As we’re dependent on the wind

Another set of rules we find

A close-hauled ship you’ll never see

Give way to one that’s running free

It’s easier running free to steer

And that’s the reason she keeps clear

With the wind the same side, running free

One’s to windward, one to lee

The leeward ship goes straight ahead

The other alters course instead

Both close-hauled or both quite free

On different tacks we all agree

The ship that has the wind to port

Must keep well clear, is what we’re taught

At other times the altering craft

Is the one that has the wind right aft


5 thoughts on “The rule of the road told in verses”

  1. Hi Gav, I am fortunate to have a treasured copy found many years ago and dipped into frequently. I particularly like the chapter on "The Science Of Cookery" Cheers Paul

  2. Interesting that they're the other way round to current colregs – i.e. in the rhyme, running on starboard gives way to beating on port, but it's now port/starboard before windward leeward.

    1. Here are the key bits of the rules as I found them this morning:

      12. Sailing vessels
      Two sailing vessels approaching one another must give-way as follows:

      Port gives way to Starboard. When each has the wind on a different side, the vessel which has the wind to port must give way;
      Windward gives way to leeward. When both have the wind on the same side, the vessel which is windward must give way to the vessel which is leeward;
      Unsure port gives way. If a vessel, with the wind on the port side, sees a vessel to windward and cannot determine whether the other vessel has the wind on the port or the starboard side, they must give way.

      13. Overtaking
      An overtaking vessel must keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken. 'Overtaking' means approaching another vessel at more than 22.5 degrees abaft her beam, i.e. so that at night, the overtaking vessel would see only the stern light and neither of the sidelights of the vessel being overtaken.[4]

      14. Head-on situations
      When two power-driven vessels are meeting head-on both must alter course to starboard so that they pass on the port side of the other. 'Head-on' means seeing the other vessel ahead or nearly ahead so that by night her masthead lights are actually or nearly lined up and/or seeing both her sidelights, or by day seeing a similar aspect of her.[4]

      15. Crossing situations
      When two power-driven vessels are crossing, the vessel which has the other on the starboard side must give way and avoid crossing ahead of her.[4] The saying is "If to starboard red appear, 'tis your duty to keep clear".[7]

      16. The give-way vessel
      The give-way vessel must take early and substantial action to keep well clear.[4]

      17. The stand-on vessel
      The stand-on vessel shall maintain her course and speed, but she may take action to avoid collision if it becomes clear that the give-way vessel is not taking appropriate action, or when so close that collision can no longer be avoided by the actions of the give-way vessel alone. In a crossing situation, the stand-on vessel should avoid turning to port even if the give-way vessel is not taking appropriate action. These options for the stand-on vessel do not relieve the give-way vessel of her obligations under the rules.[4]

      18. Responsibilities between vessels
      Except in narrow channels, traffic separation schemes, and when overtaking (i.e. rules 9, 10, and 13)

      A power-driven vessel must give way to:
      a vessel not under command;
      a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver (this may include vessels towing one another[8]);
      a vessel engaged in fishing;
      a sailing vessel.
      A sailing vessel must give way to:
      a vessel not under command;
      a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver;
      a vessel engaged in fishing.
      A vessel engaged in fishing when underway shall, so far as possible, keep out of the way of:
      a vessel not under command;
      a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver.
      Any vessel other than a vessel not under command or a vessel restricted in her ability to manoeuvre shall, if possible, not impede the safe passage of a vessel constrained by her draft, exhibiting the signals in Rule 28.
      A vessel constrained by her draft shall navigate with particular caution having full regard to her special condition.[4]

  3. Gavin: "I think it’s a gem because of the way it opens a window into the different attitudes of the past. For example I particularly liked this quotation: ‘Four things shalt thou not see aboard a yacht for its comfort – a cow, a wheelbarrow, and umbrella and a naval officer…’", reminded me that Bolger heard it differently.

    On the very last page of Boats With An Open Mind, Philip C Bolger, International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 1994, in the splendid index an entry may be found: "umbrellas, beach: as sunshades, 90-91."

    Bolger, discussing a spray hood and an awning for the design "Slicer", allows that he'd have the spray hood only. "The awning would be nice on a hot day, but I would build a couple of strong sockets for some big beach umbrellas. Even though an umbrella is one of the three things that should never be found on a yacht (the other two are stepladders and naval offficers, the way I heard it), I once saw a fast and shipshape sportfishing boat that had umbrellas permanently mounted. They were folded when she was running fast, open while she trolled. The idea never caught on, but I admired it."

    FWIW, Bolger drew umbrellas on a number of his boat designs (I can recall the electric Lily, Trashcat, and one large sailing cruiser), and drew on naval officers through the ages for a number of other designs.

    Perhaps Irving and Service may stand some correction? If so, then the three intolerable things in yachting lore may by way of contraction and substitution be: strike cow, strike wheelbarrow, insert stepladder. So there , beyond correction, naval officers may always fall beneath one of the the umbrellas of yachting incorrigibles then?


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