Four and a half decades ago I was memorizing the Navigation Rules at Maine Maritime Academy. Commonly called the Rules of the Road, their purpose was to prevent vessels from colliding. The rule book is published by the United States Coast Guard. The rules themselves are the formal agreement reached by the big maritime nations at a convention held in 1972. It’s a wonderful document of international cooperation and common interest. It prescribes the sound signals and lights to be used by vessels to indicate what type of vessel they are and what they are doing. It spells out in dizzying detail and a myriad of situations how vessels shall determine which has the right of way and which shall take the responsibility to swerve around the other, slow down or stop. The vessel that has the right of way is referred to as the privileged vessel and the vessel which must do the avoiding is called the burdened vessel. Knowing the rules by heart was essential to passing the Coast Guard exam to get our third mate’s licenses upon graduation.

We had semester after semester of instruction and discussion about how to apply the rules. We talked about why certain collisions had occurred and what would have prevented them. We were a bunch of 22 year olds getting ready to take charge of 1000-foot-long vessels steaming at a couple dozen knots in the dark of night. These were vessels that needed most of a mile to come to a full stop. Our teachers constantly reminded us of the astronomical value of the ships, cargos and lives that would be entrusted to us.

I recall the first day of class with a particular instructor who had experienced many years at sea. He started by asking us whether we would rather be the privileged vessel or the burdened vessel. A vessel can be privileged for a variety of reasons. The vessel may be doing something that makes it harder to steer or stop. The vessel may need to stay in deep water. Or simply when two vessels meet, somebody has to be the one who just keeps going and the other stays out of the way.

Most of my classmates said that they would want to be driving the privileged vessel. But a few of us said that we would prefer to be running the burdened vessel. We spent the rest of the semester talking about how it’s actually usually better to be the burdened vessel. You are the one who gets burdened with the obligation to stay out of the way but more importantly you are also the one who gets to make the choices for how to do that. The rules say that the privileged vessel must hold course and speed until the moment arrives that it becomes clear that the burdened vessel isn’t doing enough to avoid a collision. That moment is called “in extremis.”

There is always a whole lot more excitement and stress in the pilot house of a privileged vessel as the crew waits anxiously for a burdened vessel to make an obvious change in course or speed as it comes closer. The officer of a burdened vessel gets to pick from many choices with which to stay clear of the other vessel with the expectation that the other vessel will continue on at the same speed and in the same direction. When the vessels reach the point of being “in extremis” the privileged vessel has to act abruptly without the same variety of choices that the offending vessel had.

We had to memorize and recite Rule 2. That one is titled Responsibility. It reads: Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seaman, or of the special circumstances of the case. In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.

Those two sentences take the very black and white aspect of the rest of the rules and create a very large gray area. I see their purpose very clearly though. The laws of man must yield to the laws of physics if you want to stay in one piece.

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