Search billions of records on
 Plywood Boats or to The Cheap Page or to The Odd Sails










THE BOAT sailer must possess a knowledge of the rule of the road at sea, unless he wants his sport brought to an untimely end by collision. He should become thoroughly familiar with the International Steering and Sailing Rules, so that if he encounters steamships, fishing craft, pilot boats, etc., he will be able so to maneuver his own vessel as to escape collision.

The prudent skipper of a little vessel should always give steamships and ferryboats a wide berth. Big steamships sometimes are slow to answer their helms, and often will not get out of the way of small craft, although compelled to by international law. Should your boat be run down by one of these monsters of the deep you, of course, have your remedy in a court, but you are apt to find litigation very expensive when suing a steamship company, and a suit often lingers for years until, having exhausted every process, it finds itself at last on the calendar of the Supreme Court of the United States.

It is not advisable to attempt to cross the bows of a steamer unless you have plenty of room and you are a good judge of distances. Steam vessels go at a faster rate than they seem to, and the momentum of their impact is very great. Instead of crossing a steamer's bow go about on the other tack, or haul your fore sheet to windward till she has passed. Discretion is always the better part of valor. Not to monkey with ocean steamships or ferryboats is as valuable advice as that time-honored warning to boys not to fool with the buzz-saw.

Do not get "rattled," whatever you do, but keep your eyes "skinned" and your head clear.

Skippers of ferryboats often try to show off their smartness by steering as close as possible to small pleasure boats and then giving them the benefit of their wash, sometimes swamping their unfortunate victims. It is fun for the fellow in the ferryboat's pilothouse, but it is the reverse of pleasant to the man wallowing in the seething water. Therefore, do not court danger by approaching too near these unwieldy marine brutes, but if you are so luckless as to get into their wash handle your boat so that she shall not get into the trough of the waves, but take the sea on the bluff of the bow, where it will do the least harm.

Navigation by daylight in fine, clear weather is easy, but when it is dark and foggy special precautions must be taken or collision is inevitable. I do not propose to reprint in this little book the full text of the international regulations for preventing collisions at sea, but I have prepared an abstract, which will be sufficient for the practical purposes of an amateur sailor.



Between sunset and sunrise the following lights shall be carried by a steamship when under way:
• At the foremast head a bright white light, visible on a clear night at a distance of five miles, showing the light ten points on either side of the ship from right ahead to two points abaft the beam. 

• On the starboard side a green light showing from right ahead to two points abaft the beam, visible at a distance of two miles.

• On the port side a red light similar in all respects, except color, to the green light.

To prevent these green and red lights from being seen across the bow they must be fitted with inboard screens projecting at least three feet forward from the light.

Steamships towing other vessels shall carry two white masthead lights in addition to their side lights.

Sailing vessels when under way or being towed shall carry only the green and red lights as provided for steamships under way.

Small vessels that cannot carry fixed side lights in bad weather must have them on deck on their respective sides ready for instant exhibition on the approach of another vessel.

All vessels at anchor shall show where it can best be seen, at a height not exceeding twenty feet above the hull, a white light in a globular lantern of eight inches in diameter, visible all round the horizon at a distance of at least a mile. 

Pilot vessels shall only carry a white light at the masthead, visible all round the horizon, and shall exhibit a flare-up light every fifteen minutes.

Open boats are not required to carry fixed sidelights, but must, in default of such, be provided with a lantern, having a green slide on one side and a red slide on the other, which must be properly shown in time to prevent collision, taking care that the green light shall not be seen on the port side nor the red light on the starboard side.

Fishing and open boats, when at anchor or riding to their nets and stationary, shall exhibit a bright white light, and may, in addition, use a flareup light if deemed expedient.



In fog, mist, or falling snow, whether by day or night, a steamship under way shall blow a prolonged blast of her steam whistle every two minutes, or oftener. A sailing vessel under way shall blow her foghorn (which must be sounded by a bellows or other mechanical device and not by mouth power) at intervals of not less than two minutes, when on the starboard tack one blast, when on the port tack two blasts in succession, and when with the wind abaft the beam three blasts in succession.

Vessels not under way shall ring the bell at intervals of not less than two minutes.



A ship running free shall keep out of the way of a ship close hauled.

A ship close hauled on the port tack shall keep out of the way of a ship close hauled on the starboard tack.

When both are running free with the wind on different sides, the ship which has the wind on the port side shall keep out of the way of the other.

When both are running free with the wind on the same side, the ship which is to windward shall keep out of the way of the ship to leeward.

A ship which has the wind aft shall keep out of the way of the other ship.



If two ships under steam are meeting end on, or nearly end on, so as to involve risk of collision, each shall alter her course to starboard so that each may pass on the port side of the other.

If two ships under steam are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the ship which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way of the other.

Steamships must, in cases where there is risk of collision, keep out of the way of sailing vessels.

A vessel, whether sail or steam, when overtaking another, must keep out of the way of the overtaken ship.

Where by the above rules one of two ships is to keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course.


The following rhymes should be committed to memory:


When both sidelights you see ahead,
Port your helm and show your red.
Green to green or red to red,
Perfect Safety -- go ahead!
If on the port tack you steer,
It is your duty to keep clear
Of every close hauled ship ahead,
No matter whether green or red.
But when upon your port is seen
A stranger's starboard light of green,
There's not so much for you to do,
For green to port keeps clear of you.


A ship which is being overtaken by another shall show from her stern to such last-mentioned ship a white light or a flare-up light. This rule was only adopted in 1884, but I saw it practically exemplified in the ship Rajah of Cochin in the year 1874. The Rajah was running down the Southeast trades one pitch dark night in April, homeward bound; I was in charge of the deck. We had studding sails set on both sides, on the mainmast and foremast. Suddenly out of the darkness astern there loomed up the sails on the foremast of a big ship whose jib boom seemed to be right over the Rajah's stern. She carried no side lights, her skipper being probably of an economical turn of mind. I took the lighted lamp out of the binnacle, and jumping on the wheel gratings waved it as high as I could, at the same time yelling with all my might. I could hear the man on the lookout aboard the pursuing vessel roar out, and then came a clatter and a rattle of ropes and a flapping of sails as with her helm hard to port the ship that was pursuing us luffed out across our stern. She snapped off a few stunsail booms, but that was better than running us down. Capt. Sedgwick, who was in command of the Rajah, was awakened by the noise and came up from below in his pajamas. He quickly realized what a close shave his ship had experienced.



In approaching channels from seaward red buoys marked with even numbers will be found on the starboard side of the channel and must be left on the starboard side in passing in. Black buoys with odd numbers will be found on the port side of the channel and must be left on the port hand in passing in.

Buoys with red and black horizontal stripes will be found on obstructions with channel ways on either side of them, and may be left on either hand.

Buoys painted with black and white perpendicular stripes will be found in mid-channel, and must be passed close aboard to avoid danger.

All other marks to buoys will be in addition to the foregoing and may be employed to mark particular Spots, a description of which will be found in the printed Government lists.

Perches, with balls, cages, etc., will, when placed on buoys, be at turning points, the color and number indicating on what side they shall be passed.







I HAVE no space in this volume to write an exhaustive chapter on navigation. It is, however, an art easily acquired, and may be wholly self-taught. There are certain rudimentary rules for finding one's way at sea by dead reckoning, that everyone starting out on a cruise should master. The instruments needful are a compass, parallel rulers, dividers, patent log, lead line, aneroid barometer, clock, and the necessary charts of the sea which it is proposed to navigate.

In a small cruiser a compass is generally carried in a portable binnacle. When steering by it take care that the lubber's point is in a direct line with the keel or stem and sternpost. For the benefit of the uninitiated, I will explain that the lubber's point is the black vertical line in the fore side of the compass bowl, by which the direction of the vessel's head is determined. A misplaced lubber's point is sure to cause grave errors in the course actually made. The compass should be as far removed as possible from ironwork of any kind. A spirit compass, as I have remarked elsewhere, is the only kind suitable for small craft. Those with cards of hard enamel, floating in undiluted alcohol, which renders freezing impossible, are the best. The amateur boat sailer should become familiar with the compass, be able to box it by both points and degrees, and to name its back bearing's. The points of the compass are thirty two in number, as follows:


These points are subdivided into quarter points, and again into degrees. The table given shows the angles which every point and quarter point of the compass makes with the meridian:



The mariner's compass does not, however, give the true direction of the various points of the horizon. The needle points to the magnetic North and not to the true North, the difference between them being called the variation of the compass, which differs widely in various parts of the world, being sometimes easterly and sometimes westerly, and constantly changing. The amount is generally marked on the charts. In New York the variation for 1894 was 8° 26' West, or three-quarters of a point to the West of the true North. Thus, to make good a true North course, the vessel would have to steer North three quarters West. A rule easy to remember is that westerly variation is allowed to the left of the compass course, or bearing , and that easterly variation is allowed to the right of the compass course or bearing.


To convert true courses and bearings into compass courses and bearings with variation westerly, allow it to the right of the true course or bearing, and with variation easterly allow it to the left of the true course or bearing.

Deviation is another error of the compass caused by local attraction, such as the ironwork and iron ballast in a boat, or the proximity of a marlinespike to the binnacle. In a wooden boat, if proper care is taken, there should be no appreciable deviation of the compass. Deviation can be discovered by swinging the boat as she lies at her moorings, having first obtained the true magnetic bearing of some distant object, such as a lighthouse or a church steeple. As the vessel's head comes to each point of the compass, a compass bearing is taken of the object, and the difference between that bearing and the true magnetic bearing is observed and noted, and afterward tabulated. It will often be found that the deviation differs not only in amount, but in name, for different directions of the ship's head, being easterly at certain points and westerly at others.


The rule is to allow westerly deviation to the left to get the correct magnetic course, and easterly deviation to the right to get the correct magnetic course.


To find out the error of the compass in order to steer a true course, the sum of the deviation and the variation when both are of the same name, and their difference when they have different names, must be ascertained. For instance, deviation 20° West and variation 25° West, would give an error of compass 45° West, which should be applied to the left.

If the deviation was 20° East and the variation 10° West, the difference between them would be 10° East, which compass error should be applied to the right to steer a true course.


In order to find the compass course or course to steer, proceed as follows, the true course being North 40° East, the variation being 38° West and the deviation 18° East :

Deviation, 18° E.

Variation, 38° W.

being of contrary names, take their difference.

Correction, 20°

apply to the right, being westerly.

True course N. 40° E.

Compass course N. 60° E.


Another example is given where the variation and deviation are both easterly and the true course is S., 75° West.


Variation, 24° W.

Deviation, 16° W.

being of same name, add together.

Correction, 40°

apply to the left, being easterly.

True course, S. 75° W.

Compass course, S. 35° W.


A volume might be written on the mariner's compass. It is a fascinating study, but unfortunately my space is limited.

There is another correction to the compass that the amateur should have cognizance of. It is called leeway, and is, in untechnical language, the drift that the ship makes sideways through the water because of the force of the wind or the impulsive heave of the sea. Some craft, because of deficiency in the element of lateral resistance, such as in the case of a shallow, "skimming-dish" sort of a boat, with the centerboard hoisted up, will go to leeward like a crab. Others of a different type, such as the "plank-on-edge" variety, with a lead mine attached, will hang on to windward in a wonderful manner. It requires, therefore, a certain amount of judgment as well as of knowledge in this particular section of nautical lore to be able to estimate with any degree of approximate certainty the leeway a vessel may happen to make. It should not be forgotten that build has much to do with this, and that trim and draught of water are also two powerful elements in this connection. For instance, a boat with outside lead and a centerboard in a strong breeze and a lumpy sea, so long as the wind permitted her to carry a commanding spread of sail, might make no appreciable leeway, but, on the contrary, might "eat up" into the wind. But given the same boat without the lead and without the adventitious aid that the centerboard affords, she would be compelled to dowse her muslin at the first puff, and as a purely physical consequence she would retain no hold on the water and would drift off to leeward like an irresponsible she-crab.

Thus leeway must be estimated by experience. It is often a most disturbing quantity, especially when the weather is foggy and the channel in which you are steering is perplexing on account of rocks or shoals. I have already expatiated on the wisdom of anchoring in such a contingency as this whenever the elements will permit. But, of course, one is a slave of the winds and the waves, and "bringing up" is not always possible. I should, therefore, advise the amateur to carefully watch his boat and endeavor to find out approximately the amount of leeway she makes when the first reef is taken in by comparing the direction of the fore and aft line of the boat with that of her wake. This method may also be pursued with advantage under all conditions of wind and weather, and by this means a moderately correct and very useful table may be made.

The old navigators like the Drakes and the Frobishers had this matter arranged for them, so when they sailed forth on voyages of great emprise and portent they were guided by certain tabulated formula that gave them full and implicit directions for the allowance of leeway. Thus the skipper of a ship with topgallant sails furled was told to allow one point; when under double reefed topsails, one point and a half; when under close-reefed topsails, two points; when the topsails are furled, three points and a half; when the fore course is furled, four points; when under the mainsail only, five points; when under the balanced mizzen or mizzen staysail, six points; and when under bare poles, seven points.

This antiquated method of computation answered very well, for those sterling and sturdy navigators of the olden times seemed to have had a rare faculty of achieving their adventurous purpose and of gaining, too, both fame and fortune. But the commander of a clipper ship, with whom I sailed as a youngster, undertook to demonstrate to me the absurdity of any such hard-and-fast rule. We had carried away our three topgallant masts, off Cape Agulhas, while threshing hard against a westerly gale. They were whipped out of us like pipestems. It took all hands a whole day to clear away the wreck. Next day the weather moderated sufficiently for us to have carried every stitch of canvas could we have set it. There were a number of vessels beating round the Cape, and all took advantage of the cessation of the gale to spread all their flying kites to the breeze. Our ship, under three topsails, inner and outer jibs, foresail, mainsail, crossjack, spanker, foretopmast, maintopmast and mizzentopmast staysails, beat all the fleet. When it came on to blow again we were the first to reef, because some of, our rigging had got badly strained in the squall that took our topgallant masts away. Still we maintained our lead, although jogging along comfortably while our opponents were driving at it, hugging their topgallant sails and with lee rails under.

"Now," said our captain, coming on the poop after he had worked up his dead reckoning at noontime, "you see all those ships dead to leeward -- well they ought to be to windward of us unless all the books on navigation are wrong. I have entered in my traverse table the courses we were supposed to have made good under the old rule, and have thus proved its falsity. The fact is the ships that were turned out in the days when these nautical axioms were first propounded were built by the mile and cut off in lengths to suit. They had no shape to speak of below the waterline, and perhaps the rule applied to each alike. Times are different now, and leeway must be determined by the model of the ship."


The rule for reckoning leeway is as follows:

Wind on starboard side, allow leeway to the left.

Wind on port side, allow leeway to the right.


Or you may thus define it:

Vessel on starboard tack, allow leeway to the left.

Vessel on port tack, allow leeway to the right.


In this connection it might be well to urge the young mariner against keeping his boat all a-shiver and bucking against a head sea, and all the while sagging off bodily to leeward. It is better far to keep the wake right astern and keep way on the vessel -- unless, of course, the weather is too violent.

The direction and rate of tides and currents have also to be allowed for when correcting a compass course. Thus in crossing Long Island Sound from Larchmont to Oyster Bay in thick weather, the magnetic course as given in the Government chart would have to be rectified and allowance made for the condition of the tide, whether ebb or flood, or your boat might never reach her destination.




THERE ARE no better charted coasts in the world than those bounded by the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The United States Navy has done and is doing magnificent hydrographic work. The charts issued by the Government are accurate, reliable, up-to-date and reasonable in price.

The top of a chart when spread out in front of you so that the reading part appears to you like the page of a book, and you can read it from left to right, is the North, the bottom is the South, the side on your right is the East, and the side on your left is the West. There are always compasses on a chart, either true or magnetic, by reference to which and with the aid of the parallel rulers the bearing of one point from another may easily be ascertained by the following method:


Lay the edge of the rulers over the two places; then slide them (preserving the direction) till the edge of one ruler is on the center of the nearest compass; when this is done read off the course indicated by the direction of the ruler.

To measure the distance between two places on the chart spread out the dividers till their points are over them, then apply to the graduated scale at the bottom of the chart, which will give you the required distance. This method, it should be remembered, is only accurate when applied to the large coasting charts. When measuring distances on general charts which extend across many degrees of latitude, the mean latitude of the two places must be measured from.

There are certain signs and abbreviations used on charts which are easily comprehended, such as hrd for hard, rky for rocky, etc. Lighthouses and lightships are clearly marked, and shoals, rocks and other obstructions to navigation are plainly defined. All the marginal notes on the charts should be made familiar by the navigator. I need scarcely say that charts, instruments and books of sailing instructions should be kept dry. There are cylindrical tin boxes for charts which are quite cheap, and these I recommend.





The position of a vessel may be ascertained simply and accurately by cross-bearings. Suppose you are in a ship at a in Fig.6. The point with the lighthouse on it bears correct magnetic N. by W., and the point with the tree on it E. by N. You lay the parallel rules over the compass on your chart at N. by W., and work them to the lighthouse, preserving the direction. You then draw the line from the lighthouse to a. You then lay the parallel rules over the compass on your chart at E. by N., and work them in a similar way to the tree. Then draw the line from the tree to a. The spot where the two lines cut was the vessel's position on the chart when the bearings were first taken. The distance of the ship from both lighthouse and tree can be measured by taking in the dividers the distance between either and the ship, and referring to the scale on the chart.

It should be remembered that when sailing along the land cross-bearings will always determine your position, always allowing the proper corrections on the compass. In taking cross-bearings, try to have a difference between the two objects of as nearly ninety degrees as possible.

The old-fashioned log-ship and log line for determining the distance run by a vessel need have no place in the equipment of a small yacht. There are several patent self-registering logs which record the distance run, either on the taffrail or on dials on the log itself. Their performance is fairly satisfactory, but they should be kept well oiled, and should be often examined and tested -- for instance, in a run between two objects whose distance apart is well known.

By careful attention to the Lead, the Log and the Lookout, a boat may be navigated, by dead reckoning, with a certain amount of accuracy.

A nautical mile, or knot, is the same as a geographical mile. Its length is six thousand and eighty feet. A statute mile in the United States measures five thousand two hundred and eighty feet.


•• Next ••

To Plywood Boats or to The Cheap Page or to The Odd Sails or to the Top.

1.0 07/30/00

Edited by Craig O'Donnell.
Etext & images ©2000 Craig O'Donnell, all the usual whining applies.