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Right of Way Rules for Boating

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.

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 Importance of Knowing Right of Way Rules

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:

  • – Don’t go too fast. If you can increase the overall safety of your vessel or a vessel nearby by slowing down, you should. Sometimes the conditions are right to go fast, and sometimes they aren’t. It’s the job of a good skipper to know the difference. Take into account how many other boats are around you and if you have the proper space to slow down quickly.
  • – Be cautious of other boaters. Just like when you’re driving a car, just because the rules of the road exist, it doesn’t mean everyone follows them. Recreational boaters are notorious for not following the rules. If their actions seem unsafe, keep enough distance between you and them so that any unexpected maneuver won’t catch you off guard.
  • – Always be respectful and conscientious. While sometimes you may be operating under legal conditions, it’s still nice to give other boaters the respect and the space they deserve. Just because you have the right of way doesn’t mean you have to take it every time.
  • – Avoid all government vessels and restricted areas. These vessels and areas almost always have the right of way, and it’s best to give them plenty of space.
  • – Give way if it makes sense. Even if you have the right of way in a situation that could be dangerous, it’s your responsibility to alter your course if it means avoiding an accident. If you did not change your course and an accident occurred, it’s possible you could still be at least partially at fault even if you did have the right of way. Safety always takes precedence.

Rules for Different Scenarios

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:

1. Approaching a Non-Power Vessel

When you’re approaching a vessel without motor power, they have the right of way — these types of craft include sailboats, rowboats, kayaks and personal watercraft like fishing tubes.

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.

2. Approaching Power-Driven Vessels

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:

  1. 1. If another vessel is approaching you from the port — or left — side of your boat, you have the right of way and should maintain your speed and direction.
  2. 2. If a vessel is aiming to cross your path and they’re on your starboard — or right — side, they have the right of way. Alter your course so that you will pass them at a safe distance and in a way that is apparent to the other skipper.
  3. 3. Any vessel that is approaching your boat for the stern doesn’t have the right of way. Maintain your speed and course. Whenever a boat is overtaking another, the vessel in front always has the right of way and should be allowed to continue their original course unhindered. This is the case even if the vessel behind has a higher level of right-of-way priority, such as a sailboat.

 

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:

  • – When you see a red navigational light on another boat, it’s indicating their port side, and they have the right of way — red means stop.
  • – When you see a green navigational light, you’re approaching a vessel from their starboard side, and you have the right of way — green means go.
  • – How do you know if you’re overtaking another vessel at night? Look for their white stern light and steer clear. The stern light shines at 22.5 degrees on either side of the boat behind the widest point — the beam.

 

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:

  • If you’re passing through a crowded harbor: one of the best tips for this scenario is to always aim for the stern of a boat you want to go behind — this lets the operator of the other boat know that you intend to go behind them and they can continue their course. Captains will sometimes use a VHF radio to communicate their intention to “take the stern” of another boat as a courtesy and to keep traffic flowing more smoothly.
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  • If you meet another boat head-on: Under the boating rules of the road, vessels approaching each other head-on are always supposed to pass each other port to port — or left to left, just like on the road. However, crowded harbors and times when many boats come together at once make this difficult to follow all the time — stick to the rules as much as possible, but use your best judgment to keep everyone safe.
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  • If you want to use a horn to communicate or you hear another vessel’s horn: Experienced skippers will sometimes use their horns to communicate. If you want to move past another boat in a narrow channel or if you’re overtaking another vessel and would like to pass, you may sound your horn for two short blasts. If you receive two short blasts back, the other skipper is signaling that the maneuver is okay. If they sound five short blasts in response, that means passing is unsafe, and you shouldn’t pass the vessel — in any situation, if you ever hear five short horn blasts, be on alert. This is the signal for imminent danger.
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  • If you’re on a “collision course” with another vessel: Remember, you must alter your course with ample time to safely avoid a collision, even if you are the stand-on vessel. The definition of a “collision course” is when the bearing from your boat to another isn’t changing, while the distance between your two boats is shrinking.
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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.

Right of Way Between Different Types of Vessels

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:

1. A Vessel Not Under Command or a Vessel Restricted in Its Ability to Maneuver

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.

2. A Vessel Being Overtaken

Any boat approaching a vessel from astern must give them the right of way.

3. A Boat Engaged in Fishing

When a boat has commercial fishing equipment deployed, that restricts their ability to maneuver. Therefore, they have the right of way.

4. A Vessel Under Sail or Not Under Power

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.

5. A Power-Driven Vessel

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:

  • – Whenever you hear a siren or see blue flashing lights on an emergency or law-enforcement vessel, give them the right of way just like you would an ambulance or a plice vehicle.
  • – Keep an eye out for tugboats and other vessels towing — if in the open ocean, they can have a submerged tow-line with a lot of distance between them and their tow.
  • – Always take the stern of large commercial tankers and container ships in the ocean, and never try to cross in front of them. While it may look like they’re not moving, they can be running at over 20 knots.
  • – Steer clear of docked or moving ferries — some have submerged cable lines. Watch other boats and how they navigate around the ferry before crossing yourself.
  • Any boat under 65 feet is obligated to steer clear of larger, less maneuverable vessels.

 

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.

Formula Boats for Safety and Performance

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.