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Rules of the nautical road

Find out who has right of way on the waves and learn about the International Regulations for Preventing Collision at Sea.

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You’ll need

  • Bottle boats (optional)
  • Cones, string or markers

Before you begin

  • Before you get stuck into this activity, you could book a visit from the RNLI to learn about water safety.
  • You can find out more detailed information on the nautical ‘rules of the road’, the International Regulations for Preventing Collision at Sea (IRPCS), from the International Maritime Organisation.
  • Make sure everyone knows basic sailing terminology like port, starboard, windward, leeward and tack before running this activity. You could try out Build a bottle boat first, and reuse the boats made in that activity for this one.
  • If anyone’s working towards stage four of their Sailing Staged Activity Badge, pair this activity with Wild wind and When tides collide to check their knowledge.
  • The second part of this activity is an easy game to play next time the group’s out on the water, but could be adapted to use in your meeting space too.

Learn the basics

  1. Split into pairs or small groups. Give each pair or small group one of the regulations listed in the dropdown box above.
  2. In their groups, everyone should think of a way to demonstrate or act out the regulation they’ve been given.
  3. Clear a space in the activity area for each group to demonstrate or act out their regulation. The groups should take turns to do their demonstration for everyone else, repeating the actions where needed. The other groups should try to guess:
    • Who’s acting as the ‘stand on’ vessel?
    • Who’s acting as the ‘give way’ vessel?
    • What the regulation might be?
  1. When all of the regulations have been worked out, groups should work together to think up some scenarios at sea that might need sailors to remember these rules to avoid a collision. Everyone should think of a way to demonstrate or act out their preferred scenario.
  2. Once again, groups should take turns to put on a demonstration; this time of the scenario they’ve come up with, with everyone else watching. Halfway through the demonstration, the group performing should freeze. Everyone should discuss what they’ve seen and decide what they think should happen next to avoid a collision.
  1. Groups could also act out their scenario but instead of freezing, they could make an obvious mistake in their performance. Everyone else should see if they can spot it and then vote on what they think should’ve happened.

More commonly known as the ‘COLREGS’, these regulations are like the Highway Code of the sea. The rules make it clear what action to take to avoid a collision when you’re near other vessels. One of the biggest misconceptions about the COLREGS is that they’re a guidance document showing who should have ‘right of way’. They’re actually laws that everyone has to comply with. We’ve listed some of the regulations here:

  • In most situations, you’ll either be the ‘stand on’ or ‘give way’ vessel. The ‘stand on’ vessel maintains its course, while the ‘give way’ vessel needs to change its course to avoid a collision.
  • When you’re on the same tack as the other boat, the leeward boat has right of way.
  • When you’re on opposite tacks, the starboard tack boat has right of way.
  • If you’re overtaking another vessel, the vessel ahead has the right of way.
  • If you’re approaching head on, both vessels alter course to starboard and pass port-side to port-side.
  • Power boats should give way to sail boats.


Play the game

This game is ideally played out on the water if you have access to boats. If you’ve already completed Build a bottle boat and have a paddling pool you could use these instead. You could also run this indoors away from water, with everyone in the group acting as boats.

  1. Mark out a square in the activity area and tell everyone to spread out inside it. Explain that the aim of the game is to move around, using the COLREGS to avoid collisions with anyone else
  2. Before starting the game, let everyone know what the wind direction will be. Once the game has been started, all boats in the square should remain on the move and attempt to squeeze all of the other boats out of the square, without causing a collision.

This game is about using the rules and rights of way to force others to give way and sail outside the box you’ve marked out. You could make it so that anyone who doesn’t follow the COLREGS in trying to do this should also be removed from the square.

  1. The winner is the last person remaining inside the box. Play more rounds, gradually reducing the size of the box each time.
  2. When you’ve played a few rounds make sure to debrief once everyone’s back on dry land and chat about how they found the game. See who had the best tactics to force others to sail outside the box, and which nautical rules they used the most.


Some rules and regulations can seem pretty complicated at first, but hopefully by working together in this activity everyone managed to learn something new about the nautical rules of the road. If they played the final game in boats, ask everyone how they found it. Did anyone find it easier to understand the rules when they were out on the water putting them into practice? Or, did they find it easier to play the game after they’d already learned about the COLREGS on dry land? Spending some time learning the basics first can really help you feel more confident when you head out on the water.


All activities must be safely managed. You must complete a thorough risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Use the safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity. Always get approval for the activity, and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.

Water games and activities

Be careful when doing activities with, in, or near water. Check surfaces and reduce the risk of slipping where possible. Make sure you have appropriate supervision for this activity.

For an added challenge, check out some of the other sections of the COLREGS and see if you can add in some information on sailing through channels, or the lights and sounds displayed by vessels.

For example, some of the sound signals are:

  • One short blast to mean: ‘I’m altering my course to starboard’.
  • Two short blasts to mean: ‘I’m altering my course to port’.
  • Three short blasts to mean: ‘I’m operating astern propulsion’.
  • Two prolonged blasts followed by one short blast to mean: ‘I intend to overtake on your starboard side’.
  • Two prolonged blasts followed by two short blast to mean: ‘I intend to overtake on your port side’.
  • One prolonged, one short, one prolonged and one short blast to agree.
  • Two short blasts followed by one prolonged blast to attract attention.
  • You could adapt the game by drawing pictures rather than acting out the scenes.
  • When you’re ready to head out on the water, check out the RYA’s boating with a disability advice and guidance to make sure the session is accessible to the whole group.

All Scout activities should be inclusive and accessible.

Now that they know the basics, arrange a session to get out on the water, put those new skills into practice and work towards the Time on the Water Staged Activity Badge.