Rules of the Road

Boating Right of Way and Rules

Pontoon Boat

Safety first, then fun!

While the goal of being out on a boat is always to have fun, every boater knows that the number one priority is safety. For new boaters, it can be intimidating to approach boating on a crowded waterway, with other vessels weaving across your path. Luckily, there are some rules to know that may help – read on to learn more. 

Boat Type and Right of Way

Just like driving on land, the concept of right of way is the rule of safe boating. Knowing who has the right of way is the key, and in order to know that, you must know that the type of boat you’re on and the type of boat you’re approaching makes a difference in determining who has the right of way.

For example, a sailboat that is under sail and not being powered by an engine is considered to be less maneuverable than a powerboat and therefore has the right of way over the powerboat. Whether you have the right of way or not, it is your responsibility to avoid a collision. Remember, stopping a boat is always an option.

Give Way Vessel

The vessel that does not have the right of way on approach is known as the “give way” vessel, or the “stand off” vessel. If this is your boat, you must acknowledge the fact that you do not have right of way and ensure that the vessel with right of way can maintain their current course and speed. This may mean substantially altering your own course – if you do so, make it as clear as possible to the other vessel.

Stand On Vessel

The boat that does have right of way is called the “stand on” vessel, or “burdened” vessel. If this is you, it’s your responsibility to confirm the actions of the give way vessel by maintaining your course and speed until you pass them, or otherwise communicate a need to alter your course.

Rules of the road, sailboats passing

Boat type matters when it comes to right of way.

When Two Boats are Operating Near Each Other Which Has Right of Way?

So how does one go about determining who has the right of way? Besides knowing what type of vessel is prioritized by the right of way rules, there are just a few simple rules of determining whose course takes precedence according to boating rules on the water. They boil down to this: if another vessel is approaching from port, you have the right of way. Conversely, if a vessel is heading to cross your path from your starboard side, they have the right of way.

Boating Navigation Exceptions

Many boaters believe that when they are fishing or towing someone engaging in watersports, the rules of right of way change to reflect the lessened maneuverability. However, the rules around fishing or towing refer to more commercial applications, like fishing trawlers or large tugboats, not a fishing pontoon. it’s wise to be as cautious as possible when navigating around other boats and familiarize yourself with the rules.

When One Boat is Overtaking Another Which Boat Should Stand On?

When it comes to right of way when it comes to boats passing each other, the rule is really simple. Any vessel approaching another from behind (the stern) does not have right of way, and if a vessel is overtaking another, the boat in front will always have right of way. This even includes when the overtaking vessel is one typically given priority, such as a sailboat.

Boat Passing Rules

When passing another boat, there are some things to keep in mind beyond just accepting the right of way belonging to the boat ahead of you. Firstly, you must keep clear of any vessel you are overtaking as you approach it from behind. If you are in a channel or harbor, you will be required to keep to the starboard side of the channel. Finally, it’s a good idea to be careful of creating a large wake, especially if there is reason to believe it could endanger the vessel you are overtaking.

Navigation lights

Navigational lights are key to ensure safety.

Boat Navigation Lights Rules

Allowing other boats to see you more easily while on the water at night or during times of limited visibility will help ensure safety and avoid collisions. What types of lights are required will depend on the type of boat, as well as its size, but your lights will tell other boaters what type of boat you are on and some things about your situation.

While Boat is Under Power

While you are moving, powerboats of all sizes must display an all-around white light, visible from all directions. This is generally called a masthead light, and must be visible from two nautical miles. Additionally, you must have red and green side lights visible from one nautical mile. This shows other boating traffic that you are a powerboat and what direction you are travelling. A sailboat will have a tri-color light (red, green and white) at the top of its mast when under sail.

While Boat is at Anchor

When anchored at night outside a designated anchorage, an all-round light visible for at least 2 nautical miles is required. If another boater is approaching and only sees a single white light and the vessel appears to be not moving, they will assume you are at anchor and keep their distance.

Additional Boating Rules

There are a lot of rules of the road that you should be familiar with. Here’s a few other considerations, mostly to be a courteous and responsible boater.

Boating Etiquette

Being respectful of other boaters on the water is the key to a good day out. This includes being mindful of things like your wake and how going too fast can upset and intrude on other boaters and even those on shore. It’s similarly your responsibility to be aware of no-wake areas. Another rule is easy to remember – don’t litter. Take all of your trash back to shore to be disposed of properly.

Be aware of your effects on other boaters in terms of noise, since sound is amplified over the water. That means keeping your music in check. And above all, be polite to other boaters and give a little wave to show your appreciation for your fellow boating community members.

Rules for Life Jackets on Boats

When it comes to safety, you can never be too prepared. The wise choice is to carry at least one life jacket per passenger, in case of emergencies. Children under a certain age and adults who are not strong swimmers should be wearing their life jacket at all times while the boat is underway and this life jacket should be checked for proper fit.

Boat Dock Rules and Regulations

Every dock or marina is going to have different regulations, but there are some basic rules and polite behaviors to which others will expect you to adhere. Being respectful at docks and ramps is key to making sure everyone has a smooth day on the water. Try to get in and out efficiently when using a dock, marina or boat ramp. Don’t tie up in ways that get in the way of others docking, and don’t dawdle or hold other people up when you’re getting underway. Just being mindful of other boaters is vital in these scenarios.