Boating Safety

Rules of the Road when Boating

Sailboats passing, rules of the road

Familiarize yourself with the rules of the road, boating style

Anyone planning to cruise U.S. waterways should be familiar with the rules of the road. Chapman Piloting: Seamanship and Small Boat Handling and The Annapolis Book of Seamanship are both excellent on-the-water references with plentiful information on navigation rules. For those with a penchant for the exact regulatory language, the U.S. Coast Guard publication Navigation Rules: International–Inland covers both international andU.S. inland rules. (Boats over 39.4 feet are required to carry a copy of the U.S. Inland Rules at all times.)

Following is a list of common situations you may likely encounter on the waterways. Make yourself familiar with them, and if there is ever a question as to which of you has the right-of-way, let the other vessel go first. Sailors need to remember that a boat under sail with its engine running is considered a motorboat.

Passing or Being Passed:

■ If you intend to pass a slower vessel, try to hail them on your VHF radio to let them know you are coming.

■ In close quarters, BOTH vessels should slow down, which normally allows the faster vessel to pass quickly without throwing a large wake onto the slower boat.

■ A boat passing another is the "give-way" vessel and is required to keep clear of the slower

"stand-on" vessel until past and well clear of it.

■ Sound signals when overtaking (both vessels heading the same way): 

"See you on the one (whistle)" = overtake on his starboard (your port)

"See you on the two (whistle)" = overtake on his port (your starboard)

■ Sound signals when passing (vessels going in opposite directions):

"See you on the one (whistle)" = pass port to port.

"See you on the two (whistle)" = pass starboard to starboard.

■ As you pass a slower boat, take a look back to see how they were affected by your wake. Remember: YOU are responsible for your wake. It is the law to slow down and it is common courtesy.

Open bridge, rules of the road

At Opening Bridges:

■ During an opening, boats traveling with the current go first and generally have the right-of-way.

■Boats constrained by their draft, size or maneuverability (e.g., dredges, tugs and barges) take priority.

■ Standard rules of the road apply while circling or waiting for a bridge opening.

Tugs, Freighters, Dredges & Naval Vessels:

■ These vessels are usually constrained by draft or their inability to easily maneuver. For this reason, you will almost always need to give them the right-of-way and keep out of their path.

■ You must keep at least 100 yards away from any Navy vessel. If you cannot safely navigate without coming closer than this, you must notify the ship of your intentions over VHF Channel 16.

■ Keep a close watch for freighters, tugs with tows and other large vessels while offshore or in crowded ports. They often come up very quickly, despite their large size.

■ It is always a good practice to radio larger vessels (VHF Channel 13 or 16) to notify them of your location and your intentions. The skippers of these boats are generally appreciative of efforts to communicate with them. This is especially true with dredge boats on all the waterways.

In a Crossing Situation:

■ When two vessels under power are crossing and a risk of collision exists, the vessel that has the other on her starboard side must keep clear and avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel.

■ When a vessel under sail and a vessel under power are crossing, the boat under power is

usually burdened and must keep clear. The same exceptions apply as per head-on meetings.

■ On the Great Lakes and western rivers (e.g., the Mississippi River system), a power-driven vessel crossing a river shall keep clear of a power-driven vessel ascending or descending the river.

Boats meeting, rules of the road

Power Vessels Meeting Any Other Vessel:

■ When two vessels under power (either sailboats or powerboats) meet "head-to-head," both

are obliged to alter course to starboard.

■ Generally, when a vessel under power meets a vessel under sail (i.e., not using any mechanical power), the powered vessel must alter course accordingly.

■ Exceptions are vessels not under command, vessels restricted in ability to maneuver, vessels engaged in commercial fishing or those under International Rules such as a vessel constrained by draft.

Two sailboats meeting under sail:

■ When each has the wind on a different side, the boat with the wind on the port side must keep clear of the boat with the wind on the starboard side.

■ When both have the wind on the same side, the vessel closest to the wind (windward) will keep clear of the leeward boat.

■ A vessel with wind to port that sees a vessel to windward but cannot determine whether the windward vessel has wind to port or starboard will assume that windward vessel is on starboard tack and keep clear.