Maritime Collisions

AuthorEdgar Gold; Aldo Chircop; Hugh M. Kindred; William Moreira
According to the most recently available statistics published by the
Transportation Safety Board of Canada,1 301 total shipping accidents
were reported to that Board in 2014, a modest increase from the thirty-
eight year low number reported in 2012 but still representing a stead-
ily declining trend in the number of reported accidents since 2005. Of
the total reported in 2014, 88 involved collisions, an increase from the
annual average of 78 for the f‌ive years 2009–2013 but near the annual
average of 86 for the 2005–2014 period. Collisions in 2014 represented
the largest single category of reportable accidents, followed by ground-
ings, unspecif‌ied conditions of unseaworthiness, and f‌ires/explosions.
It may well be that only accidents involving commercial vessels (includ-
ing commercial f‌ishing vessels) are required to be reported to the Trans-
portation Safety Board. It is probable that signif‌icantly higher numbers
of (at least) collisions occur annually involving pleasure craft.
Despite the advances in marine technology, sophisticated electronic,
satellite, and other navigational aids, as well as new training methods
for those operating vessels, maritime accidents generally and mar-
ine collisions specif‌ically continue to feature prominently in annual
1 Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), Statistical Summary, Marine Oc-
currences 2014 (Gatineau, QC: TSB, 2015), online: TSB
Maritime Collisions 825
maritime casualty statistics. Although, as summarized above, collisions
are only one a major sector of such statistics, when they do occur they
usually involve signif‌icant losses. This is not surprising. When two large
steel structures come into contact, even at low speeds, severe damage
to the vessels involved and other consequential losses generally are the
result. They often include death and personal injury, marine pollution,
f‌ire, explosion, cargo loss, and damage. As a result, over its long history,
maritime law has developed a very complex and highly specialized sec-
tor related specif‌ically to marine collision.2 A collision is def‌ined as “the
violent encounter of a moving body with another.”3 Marine collisions
do not necessarily involve contact between two moving vessels.4 There
may also be contact between a moving vessel and a stationary object,
such as an anchored or berthed vessel, or an object that is not af‌loat at
all, such as a bridge, wharf, crane, offshore structure, or even equip-
ment protruding from another vessel.
The origins of maritime collision law are obscure and probably pre-
date Roman law, which mentions a number of cases. However, at that
time there were no specif‌ic navigational rules, other than maritime cus-
tom, and the jurisprudence was more concerned with fault and liability
for loss and damage. This approach continued into the Middle Ages
and beyond as maritime law became generally more established. How-
ever, maritime law was still mainly preoccupied with fault and damage
liability, and the f‌irst statutory rules or regulations concerning naviga-
tion would not appear until 1840, when the Trinity House Navigational
Rules were established.5 This was followed by the f‌irst UK statute that
embodied navigational rules in 1846, which was itself followed by fur-
ther statutory rules in 1851, 1854, and 1858.6 A complete new set of
regulations, applicable also to all British colonies, including Canada,
was promulgated by the British Board of Trade in 1863;7 by 1868 some
thirty-three maritime states had indicated to the UK that they would be
bound by such rules even in international waters.
2 Edgar Gold, “Foreword” in Nicholas Healy & Joseph Sweeney, The Law of Marine
Collision (Centreville, MD: Cornell Maritime Press, 1998) at 19.
3 The Oxford English Dictionary, 1991, sub verbo “collision.”
4 Strictly speaking, a collision between a moving vessel and a stationary object is
termed an “allision.” However, as this term is rarely used, the word “collision” is
employed throughout this chapter in describing contacts between vessels as well
as between vessels and other objects.
5 See David Owen, “The Origins and Development of Marine Collision Law” (1977)
51 Tulane Law Review 759 for an exhaustive examination of the history of mari-
time collision law.
6 Ibid at 784.
7 Merchant Shipping Act Amendment Act, 1862 (UK), 25 & 26 Vict, c 63, Table C.
The f‌irst diplomatic conference on navigational rules, which was
convened by the President of the United States in Washington in 1889,
resulted in the f‌irst comprehensive set of international navigational
regulations that became effective in 1897.8 Subsequent international
conferences in Brussels, Belgium, in 1910 and in London, England, in
1948 and 1960 made a series of further changes to what had by that time
become the international collision regulations. During colonial times
and beyond, Canada had fully accepted these rules. This means that for
well over a century a widely accepted set of international navigational
rules for the conduct of vessels at sea has been in existence.9 These
rules are not designed for the f‌inding of liability, fault, or damages. The
breach of the rules, nevertheless, leads in most cases to such a f‌inding
as is discussed later in this chapter.
The navigational rules currently in use throughout the world are the re-
sult of a major revision undertaken by the International Maritime Organ-
ization (IMO) in 1972 that resulted in the Convention on the International
Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972.10 These regulations
have been accepted by almost all states and are applicable “to all vessels
upon the high seas and in all waters connected therewith.”11 Under these
regulations, states are permitted to make specif‌ic rules for harbours, riv-
ers, lakes, roadsteads, and inland waterways connected to the high seas.
However, such rules should comply as closely as possible with the main
rules.12 Canada accepted COLREGS 1972 in 1975, enacting regulations
accordingly under the then Canada Shipping Act.13 These regulations im-
plement COLREGS 1972 and apply to all Canadian vessels anywhere in
the world and to any vessel within the territorial and internal waters
of Canada, but include certain modif‌ications that accommodate inland
waters navigation as well as seasonal requirements.
8 Healy & Sweeney, above note 2 at 7.
9 For a detailed examination of the history of the collision regulations, see one of
the leading texts on the area: Simon Gault et al, Marsden on Collisions at Sea, 14th
ed (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 2015).
10 20 October 1972, 1050 UNTS 16 [COLREGS 1972].
11 Ibid, r 1(a).
12 Ibid, r 1(b).
13 Currently Collision Regulations, CRC, c 1416, made under Canada Shipping Act,
2001, SC 2001, c 26 [CSA, 2001]. The Regulations entered into force in Canada
on 15 July 1977 [Canadian Collision Regulations]. See Rui Fernandes, Shipping
and Admiralty Law (Toronto: Carswell, 1995) at 3-5.

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