Waterway Rules 101

The open water, like the open road, symbolizes adventure and is the stuff of legend: white whales, old men, gargantuan sea monsters. But unlike the road, the water lacks lanes, traffic lights and signs to regulate everyone and create a common, agreed-upon flow. The water’s increased freedom comes with increased responsibility. With the ever-increasing diversity of boating vessels, especially during the highest traffic months of summer, safe navigation has never been more important.

Rule #1: Take a Safety Course—For Free!

Organizations such as the BoatU.S. Foundation or the United States Power Squadrons offer multiple boating safety courses. Taking a safety course will provide you with a solid foundation to understand the rules of the water.

Rule #2: Understand Right of Way

Understanding right of way on the water remains a key element in boating safety. But knowing who has the right of way on the water can be tricky, especially because boat speak is not the same as road speak. For example, if your vessel has the right of way, you’re the stand-on vessel. If not, you’re the give-way vessel and should allow the other boat to pass.

When it comes to right of way on the water, you need to consider the position of the vessel as well as its type and size and the surrounding waterscape. Typically, the least maneuverable vessel is designated the stand-on, such as a sailboat under sail or a commercial vessel. If you’re in a narrow channel or on a river and following another vessel, you’re the give-way vessel. You bear more responsibility should anything go wrong if you try to pass, hence why you’re also called the burdened vessel.

Rule #3: Ask for Permission, Not Forgiveness

It’s necessary to always ask for permission to pass another vessel when you’re the give way. To ask for permission, sound two short blasts. If you hear two short blasts back, you’ve got the thumbs up to pass on the (left) port side. Should you hear five blasts back or nothing at all, consider your permission denied. The vessel in front of you may have access to information about water conditions or safety you don’t have access to like a person overboard, wreckage or fishing equipment.

Rule #4: Be a Self-Proclaimed Crossing Guard

If you find yourself in a situation where you could collide with another vessel if neither of you changes course, follow these guidelines:

  • If the vessel is on your (right) starboard side, that vessel is the stand on and has the right of way to cross in front of you.
  • If the other vessel is on the (left) port side, you’re the stand on and must pass in front of the other vessel.
  • If you’re meeting a vessel head on, both of you should steer to the right so you can pass each other safely portside to portside.
  • If nobody seems to know what they are doing, play it safe and give way.

Rule #5: Obey the ATONs

Aids to Navigation (or ATONs for short) include buoys, day and radio beacons, lights, lighthouses, fog signals, marks and other objects used for communication and signage. They help determine a vessel’s position and chart a safe course. They can notify boaters of restrictions or dangers such as designated activity areas, dams or speed limits. Just like street signs, they should be obeyed for everyone’s safety and enjoyment.

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