If you’re a new boat owner or you need a refresher on the right of way rules for boating — this article is for you.
While we all love to have fun on the water, safety is always the priority. You may be intimidated thinking about driving your new boat down a crowded waterway with all different types of vessels crossing your path. How does everyone know where to go and how to stay out of each other’s way? Fortunately, there are regulations to minimize collisions and to maintain order and safety. However, it is also important to note that despite the rules, it is always your responsibility to avoid a collision, no matter the scenario.
Every good captain must know the right way to approach interactions with other boats — just like how it’s essential to know traffic rules when driving a car. When you understand the fundamental boating rules for rivers, oceans and harbors, you’ll be able to cruise through the most crowded waterways with ease. Let’s dive in.
The United States Coast Guard reported almost 4,300 recreational boat accidents in 2017. Surprisingly, most recreational boaters aren’t familiar with the boating rules of the road, which causes confusion and makes their boating experience less safe and more stressful. If you master even the basic principles of boat-passing rules, you’ll know how to behave in any situation and keep your cool.
As the captain of your vessel, it’s your responsibility to maintain the safety of your boat and everyone onboard. The more knowledgeable you are about how to do that — such as by knowing and understanding boating right-of-way-rules and collision regulations — the less you have to worry about something going wrong.
First things first — a few general tips for maintaining navigational safety:
How two boats approach each other determines which has the right of way. Position, direction and the different levels of priority for different vessels make up the majority of the rules on the water. We’ll get into the different types of vessel priority a little later.
When a vessel has the right of way, they’re called the “stand-on” or “burdened” vessel. If you’re the stand-on vessel, you have to confirm the actions of the give-way vessel by maintaining your course and speed until you pass them or need to alter your course.
The “stand-off” or “give-way” vessel is the one that doesn’t have the right of way.
What does it mean to give another vessel right of way? You must ensure they can hold their current course and speed, which may mean substantially altering your course in a way that’s clear to the stand-on vessel.
For this article, we’re assuming you operate a power-driven vessel — the rules are a little more complicated if you’re sailing.
Here are some common scenarios you’re likely to encounter on the water:
When you’re approaching a vessel without motor power, such as a sailboat, they have the right of way.
An important note — a sailboat must be “under sail” to qualify for the right of way over power-driven vessels. If they’re using their small outboard motor instead, they have the same right of way as a normal powerboat.
In recent years we have seen a proliferation of human-powered craft in the form of kayaks and paddle boards. The Navigation Rules refer to human-powered craft as “vessels under oars” and they are singled out only in the lighting rules. Otherwise they are simply “vessels.” We may encounter these vessels in three different navigational situations. We may encounter them in overtaking situations. The vessel being overtaken is the most privileged vessel on the high seas. Give that human-powered craft a wide birth when overtaking, being mindful of your wake as you do. The two other navigational situations in which we may encounter paddlers are head-on and crossing situations.
Interestingly, the rules don’t make specific provisions for power-driven vessels encountering vessels under oars in head-on and crossing scenarios. Rule 2 is the “responsibility” rule, and it, in essence, tells us to use good judgment based on the whole of the navigational picture. In head-on situations, the standard port to port passing should serve us well. In crossing situations, there’s no reason why we can’t apply the rules of power-driven vessels as well. The vessel that has the other to her starboard shall give way. In short, Rule 8 tells us we must take all reasonable action to avoid a collision. Vessels under oars move relatively slowly and are easy to avoid. When encountering them take early and positive action to pass at a safe distance. In any case of uncertainty, the rules tell us we should slacken our speed.
When two boats have the same priority of right of way based on their classification, the determining factors become position and direction of travel.
To determine the position of another vessel relative to your own, you must know the different “sectors” of your vessel, i.e., starboard, port and stern. Once you identify where another boat is relative to your own, you’ll know who has the right of way.
Using the following simple rules, you’ll have a good grasp on how to behave around other powerboats:
When the sun goes down, and boaters turn on their navigational lights, there’s an easy way to remember to who has the right of way:
Knowing the basics listed above will have you in great shape in most boating situations. Below are some of the best practices that will help take your navigational skills to the next level:
Once you’re familiar with the basic rules of the road, use them with your best judgment, and navigating through boat traffic will be a breeze.
Now that you know the basic rules of the road, we’ll cover a few special situations you may encounter. Besides the basics of power versus non-power boat rules, there’s a pecking order when it comes to the right of way — different vessels and different conditions determine who is the stand-on vessel.
Here’s the U.S. Coast Guard list, from the highest level of right of way to the lowest:
The Coast Guard gives these two types of vessels the same level of priority. A boat “not under command” means that an unexpected circumstance is keeping the boat from maneuvering, like an engine or steering failure.
A vessel that restricted in its ability to maneuver is unable to move out of the way of other boats due to the nature of its work, like a buoy tender fixing a navigational aid or vessel transferring passengers while underway.
Any boat approaching a vessel from astern must give them the right of way.
When a boat has commercial fishing equipment deployed, that restricts their ability to maneuver. Therefore, they have the right of way.
A vessel under sail as well as other watercraft that are not powered, — such as canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, etc. — have the right of way over powered-vessels.
As a power-driven vessel, you must give way to all the other categories above. If you are converging on another powered boat, either head-on or astern, the right-of-way rules mentioned earlier apply.
A few more unique situations that the Coast Guard doesn’t include on their simplified list are:
It’s important to maintain a proper lookout at all times when operating your vessel. If your boat is small enough, you may be able to keep track of everything by yourself. If you have a larger boat, you’ll probably want some help from a friend onboard — especially when leaving the dock or landing. Having an extra set of eyes is helpful to any captain, no matter how seasoned.
If you apply these tips and remain alert and responsible when operating your boat, there’s no reason you should get into a collision. If someone who isn’t following the rules happens to bump into you, following the rules only helps your case.
You can find a copy of the USCG Navigation Rules in most boating supply stores, and you can also download it online. It’s a good idea for any boater to carry a copy onboard, and it’s mandatory for any vessel over 39 feet in length. Be sure to look up your state’s navigational rules before you set out, as they may vary depending on location.
Here at Formula Boats, we take safety seriously. As a family company since 1976, we know the importance of protecting your most valuable assets. Owned and operated by lifelong boaters, the Porter family treats every product as a representation of themselves — that’s why we do everything we can to equip our customers with not only the most reliable boats available, but also the knowledge to be safe no matter what they do on the water.
Our customers keep coming back because when you own a Formula boat — you’re part of the family. If you’ve thought you can’t have it all in a boat, think again. We don’t make boats for the masses — we make boats for you. With more than 60 years of continued innovation, we make precision watercraft that surpass expectations of quality and performance.
Contact us today for any other boating questions you may have or to request a quote.