On the water, there are set rules of navigation called COLREGS which exist to make sure that everyone is safe on the water. This system takes into account that some boats are more maneuverable than others in different situations and therefore, the rules are adjusted for each type of encounter.
For example, a sailboat is less maneuverable than a powerboat, so a sailboat has right of way over a powerboat. Now, a giant cargo ship is a powerboat, but it also draws a lot more water and can't maneuver as easily; therefore, when in a channel where the powerboat is technically trapped, it has right of way over a sailboat.
In general, when in a channel, a commercial boat will always have right of way over a pleasure boat because they are doing something that forces them into the channel. So, if you encounter any commercial vessel in a channel, stay out of their way (and maybe radio them to let them know that you see them and are staying out of their way).
In the open ocean, however, there is plenty of water and no channel to restrict movement, so the giant and mighty commercial ship will now yield to the slower moving sailing vessel. This might seem backwards at first, since both boats can go anywhere, but the sailboat is limited in movement based on the wind.
On the open ocean, we have found that radioing a commercial vessel that is on a collision course with you is best when you are still more than 5 miles apart. At this distance, an alteration in their course of less than 2 degrees will open up your passing and take you from a collision course to a generous clearance.
We have found that giant car carriers, oil tankers, and container ships all have extremely courteous captains who will gladly alter course slightly to give a wide passing between ships, day or night.
We have also found that tug boat captains are the least courteous. We feel that it is "Little Boat Syndrome" where they are a commercial ship, but the smallest of the commercial ships. Therefore, they need to bark the loudest to be heard and respected. All they are doing is being rude though as they totally ignore the rules of the road and try to bully everyone around them.
Our first encounter with an angry tug happened with Arabian Sea off the coast of Virginia. We were in open water and he was heading for our port side. We radioed him when we were still 7 miles apart and he quickly became very irate and angry with us over CH16. After a few minutes of his badgering, we offered to change course to avoid the collision since he was not willing to. This is when he told us "No, don't change course, I turned a few minutes ago." If you already turned, why did you keep yelling at us?
More recently, we had a run in with Chistine M. McCallister off the coast Florida. We were sailing around 10 miles off the coast of Florida, far from any channel or major city, when Christine M. McCallister began approaching us from our stern. We were sailing under storm sails, as it was blowing around 20 knots at 2am, when our AIS CPA alarm began to sound. Christine M. McCallister was fast approaching us on our stern and was 10 miles away.
Maddie radioed him over the VHF radio alerting him to our presence and letting him know that we were on a collision course. His response was simple, he told us that we needed to know where he was and get our of his way. We informed him that he was overtaking us and we were under sail, but he didn't seem to care and continued on his collision course.
When he was only 5 miles away and not altering course, we radioed him again and illuminated our sails to help him see our position. He responded by putting a search light on us and radioing us to move out of his way.
Maddie calmly called him on the radio again and informed him that we had right of way and asked him to alter course just a little bit to avoid a collision. His response was "Jesus F***ing Christ!" The reason we didn't want to alter course is because we were on a run, and if we turned to windward any, we would run into a shoal up ahead. If we turned downwind any, we would have to jibe. By staying on course, our windvane and sails were all perfectly set and would carry us on that course for the entire night and into the next morning. The alternative was for him to simply turn by a few degrees and avoid the collision at sea.
If we were in a channel, absolutely we would move out of his way. In this case, we were in the open ocean and we had a few points to our favor in terms of right of way:
First, we were under sail.
Second, we were being overtaken.
Third, we were on starboard tack.
Fourth, we were the downwind vessel.
After a lot of verbal abuse from Christine M. McCallister, he finally turned just slightly and avoided the entire predicament. Why do tug boat captains always yell the loudest? Why can't they be nice like everyone else on the water? We all yield to the vessel that needs to maintain its course, allowing everyone to proceed as they were in the happiest of ways. Why yell and curse over the radio only to find that you are at fault and end up turning just a bit anyways?
We are leery of tug boats that we see on the water as we never know what they are going to do, but we are ready for how they will respond over the radio.