The Rules of International Waters Explained Simply

Understanding Maritime Law in International Waters

When it comes to the high seas, the Rules of International Waters are as vast and as complex as the waters themselves. The concept of international waters, also known as the high seas, comes with a unique set of regulations and legal frameworks. Here’s an in-depth look at the laws that govern these stretches of ocean, far from the jurisdiction of any one nation’s shores.

Territorial Waters and Sovereignty

Within 12 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline lies what is known as territorial waters. In this zone, the country has full sovereignty, much like its land territory, and all foreign vessels must abide by the laws of the coastal state. This jurisdiction extends to the airspace above and the seabed below.

The Contiguous Zone

Beyond the territorial waters, up to 24 nautical miles from the baseline, lies the contiguous zone. Here, the coastal state can enforce laws related to customs, immigration, and pollution, but its power is not as far-reaching as in territorial waters.

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

Stretching up to 200 nautical miles from a country’s coast, the EEZ allows a state to claim exclusive rights to the exploitation of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind. However, the EEZ is not considered part of a country’s territory in regards to maritime transit.

Flag State Principle

The laws of the flag state — the country in which a ship is registered — govern all vessels on international waters. This principle means that a ship must follow the laws of its flag state, regardless of its location in the open sea. This can have implications for labor laws, environmental regulations, and more.

Flags of Convenience

Some ship owners register their vessels in countries with laxer regulations and lower fees, a practice known as using a ‘flag of convenience’. This can lead to discrepancies in standards between ships operating in the same areas.

Port State vs. Flag State

When a vessel enters the territorial waters of another nation, the port state may enforce certain international laws, but unless the ship is docking, it generally cannot impose its domestic regulations over those of the flag state.

The U.S. Jones Act

In the U.S., the Jones Act stipulates that ships transporting goods between U.S. ports must be U.S.-flagged, built, and owned. This has led to a situation where most cruise ships operating in Hawaiian waters are registered under flags of convenience, avoiding the strict U.S. regulations.

International Waters: A Legal Mosaic

The Rules of International Waters complexity lies in the coexistence of various legal systems: the laws of the flag state, the international treaties, and the regulations of the port state. Understanding this intricate legal fabric is crucial for anyone involved in maritime navigation, commerce, and law.

The Law of Water: A Metaphor Extending Beyond the Seas

In an intriguing twist, the language of maritime law extends its reach into everyday English and the legal system itself. In a recent presentation, a speaker explained how maritime terms have been metaphorically applied to describe legal and economic concepts.

From Ships to Birth Certificates

The analogy begins with ships, traditionally referred to as ‘she’ because they deliver products. This parallels the birthing process, where a ‘birth certificate’ for a person is akin to a ‘certificate of manifest’ for a ship’s cargo.

The Body as a Corporation

Extending this metaphor, the human body is likened to a vessel, a ‘corporation’ producing a ‘product’. This idea is further reflected in the language of death, where a ‘corpse’ denotes the end of the corporate entity that is a living person.

Legal Proceedings and Maritime Law

Even the court system is not immune to these nautical influences. Entering a courtroom is described as moving from the ‘law of the land’ to ‘maritime admiralty law’, with terms like ‘bail’ and ‘bar’ carrying both legal and maritime meanings.


Both international maritime law and its metaphorical influence on language are complex and pervasive. From the governance of the high seas to the idioms of our legal systems, the legacy of maritime law continues to steer the ship of modern jurisprudence. Understanding these influences is key to navigating the legal landscapes of both land and sea.

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