Boating Rules of the Road


saling rules of the road

 Remember that other boat's crew that almost T-boned yours and then, having missed you by a few inches, waved hello at you, not even realizing they had not respected your right of way? Save yourself from, at worst, damage and, at best, from embarrassment. Read those basic Rules of the Road. They will cover most situations you will encounter in most charter areas. By the way, some rules are not real ones out of The Book, but just "play-it-safe" rules to stay out of harm's way (see Rules #1 and #2 for examples.)

Rules of Thumb

Rule #1: Boats that are much bigger than yours have the right of way, no matter what. Examples: Cargo freighters, cruise ships, big Caribbean inter-island ferries, garbage barges, etc... you get the idea. In theory, there are plenty of situations where those guys do not have the right of way. However, personally, when I see those big ferry boats coming straight at my boat, going full blast with no apparent intention of deviating from their course, I get out of the way. No questions asked.

Rule #2: If you think the other boat's crew have not or cannot see you, just give way.

Rule #3: If you have any doubt of any sort, get out of the way. Simple as that.

Real Rules

Sailboat vs. Powerboat
A sailboat under sail has the right of way over a powerboat. A sailboat under power becomes a powerboat — see below.
Sailboat vs. Sailboat
  • Both boats on the same tack: the leeward boat has the right of way.
  • Boats on opposite tacks: the boat on starboard tack has the right of way.
  • Note (for the really challenged!): A sailboat is on the starboard tack when the boom is on the port side (or left side). A sailboat is on the port tack when the boom is on the starboard side (or right side).
Powerboat vs. Powerboat
Powerboats include a sailboat under power, even if the sails are still up: the boat on the starboard (right) side has the right of way.
Overtaking Boats
A boat overtaken by another boat has the right of way. The boat being overtaken should stay the course.
Meeting Head-On
When two power-driven boats are approaching head-on, neither has the right of way. However, it is usually accepted that you should alter course to starboard (right) and pass port-to-port.
Other Cases
A boat that is towing; a boat that is fishing with nets, trawls, etc.; and a boat that has lost its ability to maneuver... all have the right of way. A racing boat does not have the right of way over a non-racing boat; however, as a courtesy, I give way whenever I safely can.

 Read the real Rules of the Road

"Is that boat gonna ram into mine?"

How can you tell? Easy! (Method is valid regardless of the distance between the boats). Say you see a boat seemingly coming towards yours at an angle, and you see it just forward of your starboard stay (If you have a hand compass, and you want to impress your neophyte crew, you can also take a bearing of the other boat.) Check again 2 to 3 minutes later. Three things can have happened:

That's it, folks. That's all you need to know for safe chartering!

Disclaimer: This article is for information only. Sailonline's and/or the author's responsibility cannot be engaged under any circumstances.

*Picture by Tom Lochhaas