Boating - Right of way rules

Boating - Right of way rules

Although boating can be extremely fun, we must always be aware that safety should be a priority. Driving a boat through a crowded waterway can be intimidating especially if there are all kinds of different vessels crossing your path.

But, fortunately there are a set of rules that help us to avoid the collision and maintain safety and order. These rules are like traffic rules for driving a car, and as a good captain you should know the right way to approach other vessels.

There are a set of rules you should always abide, like:

  • Do not go too fast – there are situations when you can drive fast and there are situations when you should lower your speed or even turn off the motor. The last option is always a good one if you are approaching swimmers, divers or if you are close to the coast.
  • Be careful of other vessels – the situation on the waterway is somewhat similar to the traffic situation on the road. Some drivers choose to neglect the rules. Such is the case with recreational drivers, if you notice this kind of behavior, it is best to keep your distance from them.
  • Always be respectful – even though you might have a right of way it does not mean you should always take it.
  • Avoid government vessels – they always have the right of way
  • Give way if necessary – if you have a right of way in some situations (like in dangerous ones) it is best to alter your course to avoid an accident.

Rules for different situations

The position, direction and the different levels of priority make the ground rules on the water.

1. Approaching a non-power vessel

If you are approaching a vessel without a motor like a sailboat, they have a right of way. Of course, this sailboat must be “under sail” to qualify for the right of way. In case they are using an outboard motor, then they have the same right as any normal powerboat.

2. Approaching power-driven vessels

When two vessels have the same priority for the right of way, then determining factors become positions and direction of travel. Below are rules which will help you determining which one has the right of way:

  • If another vessel is in front of you or is approaching from your left (side of the boat) than you have the right of way and you should continue with the same speed and direction
  • If another vessel is traveling and aiming to cross your path and they are coming from your right side (or starboard side) then they have the right of way. You should alter your course so you can pass them at the safe distance
  • Any vessel approaching you from the stern side does not have a right of way. You can maintain your speed and direction.

If a boat is overtaking another boat than the boat that is in front always has the right of way, this is the case if the vessel in the back is the sailboat with the higher priority.

When the sun is down and the boaters turn on their navigational light the situation is as follows:

  • When you see a red light on a boat this indicates their port side and they have the right of way – red means you should STOP
  • If you see green light, you are approaching this vessel from their starboard side and you have right of way – green means GO

Of course there are situations in which we apply best practices for navigation:

If you are going through a crowded harbor – in these situations it is best to aim for the stern of the boat you want to go behind. This helps the driver of the boat to know your intentions so they can continue on their course.

If you meet another boat head on – in this case you should always pass the boat on their left side (port to port).

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