Free Article : Rule 14: Should we reciprocate?

01 Nov 2023 Institute News

Interpretation of the head-on rule - Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ It’s not the first occasion that the law has used a biblical quote. We could also apply this to the Head-on Rule.

Captain Chris Bordas MNI MSc BA (law), CMMar

In this article, I want to explore Rule 14 of the Colregs, known to all as the Head-on Rule. The reason for this is that its interpretation has come into question by the English Courts.

Much of our primary legislation is written in such a way that it often requires the Courts or Arbitral Tribunals to fill in the gaps when there is an incident. In these cases, the Colregs are under intense scrutiny as solicitors with marine experience and backgrounds go (excuse the pun) head-on.

One case which is soon to be considered by the English Court of Appeal is the collision between 327 metre long bulk carrier FMG Sydney and the 300 metre long container vessel MSC Apollo. The Court of Appeal has asked for narrow but potentially very significant arguments regarding whether Rule 14 (Head-on) or Rule 15 (Crossing) should apply to these vessels at a point 12 minutes before the collision. Much more went on between the vessels to cause them to come into contact, but that is of no concern to us here.

The relevant context is that the FMG Sydney had the MSC Apollo 1.5 points on her port bow at night and in good visibility, showing both sidelights and masthead lights which would have appeared almost in line. With a range of approximately 5.0 nm and a closing speed of 25.4 knots, the vessels would pass red to red, with a CPA about 0.4 nm. 

The Court asks whether it is possible for Rule 15 to apply in this situation: ‘The vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel’. The MSC Apollo had the FMG Sydney about 2˚ on her starboard bow and the vessels would pass red to red. The courses could not intersect ahead, so this could not be a crossing situation. I wonder how a bridge officer would feel about being forced to stand on and possibly wait for Rule 17 to be actioned, bearing in mind the relative approach speed between the vessels of 25.4 knots. I think that most mariners, including myself, would choose to alter course to starboard at a much earlier stage, making their intentions clear and increasing the CPA.

Applying Rules 14 b and c would have required FMG Sydney to act at this time or sooner to increase the CPA accordingly. We have reached the point at which there has to be a further discussion of the applicability for Rule 14. There has been much discussion on whether a course difference between the vessels of 17˚ could possibly be ‘a nearly reciprocal course’. This was the hub of disagreement in Court as well, when Counsel refloated the old Colregs of 1960, where Rule 18 (the old Head-on Rule) clearly stated that both vessels had to pass this test of reciprocity.

However, the reciprocity test was effectively removed in the new Colregs of 1972, with the introduction of Rule 14b. This addresses the circumstances under which an OOW can apply Rule 14 to their own vessel, importantly, without having to calculate whether it applies to the other vessel as it closes up at high speed. This is a critical consideration, especially at night.

‘14(b) Such a situation shall be deemed to exist when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead and by night she would see the mast head lights of the other in a line or nearly in a line and or both sidelights ….’

A further consideration is to ask whether one and a half points on the port bow is enough of an angle to say that the other vessel is ‘nearly ahead’ and then take action to open the angle at an early stage and avoid the confusion that subsequently occurred between these vessels. Naturally, if you are ‘in any doubt as to whether such a situation exists’ then Rule 14c tells you to apply the rule and alter course to starboard. Doing this is an effective and default safety mechanism The author’s independent views are expressed as a full time mariner and are based on information which is in the public domain.