Boat with Confidence: How to Properly Handle Boating Right of Way scenarios

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boating right of way

As a boating enthusiast, I am well aware boating right of way rules are essential for boat safety. Accidents on the water do happen and can have serious consequences. 

Unlike when driving a car, we don’t have things like lanes, traffic lights, or signs to help us when we’re on a boat.

We have to use what we know about boating rules, learn from our past experiences, and pay close attention to what’s going on around us to keep safe on the water.

Let’s take a look at some basic rules for driving a boat and talk about times when knowing who should move first is really important.

What are the navigation rules for boating?

Operating a boat requires following certain rules to ensure the safety of all boaters. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has established navigation rules to help boaters avoid collisions and navigate safely.

These navigation rules can be compared to the rules of the road on a highway. They provide a standard approach to safe navigation and collision avoidance including scenarios where two boats cross paths, head towards each other, or when one boat seeks to pass another. 

Navigation rules define the specific actions that boaters must take to avoid collisions. Also how to handle different maneuvering scenarios, including which boat has the right of way based on the vessel type and activity.

It can be difficult to determine which vessel has the right of way in a particular scenario. But there are some general principles that can be helpful and that you need to be familiar with.

Remember, navigation rules are there to improve safety and to promote good navigation practices for all boaters.

Key navigation safety points 

Before we get into the details about the right of way for different scenarios, let’s cover some important navigation safety points.

boat safety
  • Maintain a safe speed. – Like when you drive a car, slowing down your boat will allow you to take action to avoid collisions and stop safely if needed.  It will also help with the stability and maneuverability of the boat. It is specially important to slow down when approaching a recreational fishing boat, follow the link to know why.
  • Maintain a proper lookout. Always check the position of other boats, and other navigational hazards to reduce the risk of collision. Use any means possible, use your sight and hearing, or use radio communications and be aware of your surroundings. 
  • Avoid collisions. Use any means possible to assess the risk of collision. This is especially important when navigating near fast or large boats. Take action to avoid a collision.  
  • Give way when necessary. Even if you have the right of way under a certain scenario, you also have a duty to avoid collisions. Giving way may in some cases be the safest and most reasonable way to avoid a bigger problem.
  • Stay away from restricted areas or naval vessels. Follow government directives and avoid boating near restricted areas and facilities such as power plants, bridges, and dams.  Home Security mandates you do not approach within 100 yards of a U.S. naval vessel and to slow down to a minimum speed when operating within 500 yards. 
  • You are in charge. Yes, you are the boss, but also the captain of the boat. As the captain, it’s your responsibility to know the rules, behave responsibly, and avoid collisions. You are entrusted with the safety of all passengers, which includes making sure everyone is wearing their life jackets as per local regulations. Remember to slow down, assess the situation, communicate with your crew, and take every measure to avoid accidents.

Who has the boating right of way?

The boating right of way is determined by the type of boats involved in the approach, their relative position to each other, and their direction of travel. 

In general, less maneuverable vessels have the right of way, or have more priority over more maneuverable vessels. For example, a sailboat propelled by wind would be less maneuverable than a motorboat.

According to the right of way rules, the “stand-on” vessel has the right of way and must keep its course and speed. While the “give-way” vessel must yield and take action to avoid a collision.

Boating right of way rules apply to all types of vessels, including power-driven vessels, sailing vessels, and others. 

Here are the basic definitions you need to be familiar with:

Vessel: any craft that can be used as a means of transportation on water.

Stand-on vessel: a vessel that requires keeping her course and speed. 

Give-way vessel: a vessel that requires taking action and keeping clear of the Stand-on vessel.

Power-driven vessel: a vessel operating with a motor. A vessel propelled by machinery.

Sailing vessel: a vessel operating using sails alone and not propelled by a motor or machinery, even if the motor is fitted.

It’s important to note that boating right of way rules, unlike rules for road driving, are not absolute and do not provide a privilege or right.

As a boater, you should always prepare to take evasive action and to avoid a collision. Even if the situation suggests you have the right of way.

Approaching another Power-Driven vessel

The boating right of way rules when approaching another power-driven boat depend on the position and the traveling direction of the other boat relative to yours.

Let’s explore some common scenarios below. 

Meeting another boat Head-On

boating right of way diagram

When two power-driven boats are approaching each other head-on, the boating right of way rules indicate each boat must alter its course to starboard (the right-hand side) if possible, in order to stay away from the oncoming vessel. This means that both boats should turn to the right and pass each other port side to port side. Tip: this is one of the reasons why many boat steering wheels are on the right side.

If you are navigating at night, you will have an indication of a head-on approach if you see both the red and green lights of the oncoming boat. Check our guide on Navigation Light Rules for more details.

Overtaking another boat

boat passing rules

In an overtaking scenario, the boat passing rules indicate a boat (the give-way vessel) will approach the stern of another boat (the stand-on vessel) and pass on either the port or starboard side. Make sure it is safe to overtake before initiating the maneuver. The overtaking boat will continue moving forward, maintaining a safe distance and speed.

At night, the boat that is overtaking will only see the stern (white) light of the boat being overtaken. If you see any of the boat sidelights (green or red), then pay close attention because it actually is a path-crossing situation.

Crossing paths with another boat

boating rules of the road

When two power-driven boats are approaching and are in a crossing situation, the boat approaching from starboard is the stand-on vessel and has the right of way, the other boat is the give-way vessel, and it must turn and take action to avoid a collision.

If operating at night and you see a red light moving from right to left in front of you, you could be in a collision path and need to take evasive action. 

Approaching a non-powered vessel

When a power-driven boat is approaching a non-powered vessel such as a sailboat, the boating right of way rules indicate it must give way to the sailboat, unless the sailboat is overtaking it.

Sailing Right of Way

The boating rules involving two sailing vessels when operating near each other depend on several factors such as wind direction, the relative position of the vessels, and their courses. Some of the key rules for sailboats include:

  • A sailboat on a starboard tack (wind coming on its starboard side) has the right of way
  • A sailboat on a port tack (the wind coming from its port side) must give way to a sailboat on a starboard tack.
  • When two sailboats are on the same tack (the wind coming from the same side), the leeward (downwind) vessel gets the right of way over the windward (upwind) vessel.
  • When two sailboats are on the same tack (the wind coming from the same side) in a passing situation, the vessel being overtaken has the right of way.

Of course, these rules assume both vessels are under sail and not motoring in.

If you’re finding some of these terms unfamiliar, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Check out this comprehensive Glossary of Nautical Terms to get a better grasp on boat jargon.

Wrapping up

You can make your time on the water safer and more enjoyable by becoming familiar with these rules and following them. 

Your safety while boating depends on your understanding of the various right of way scenarios. 

Go ahead and download your copy of the USCG navigation rules and regulations handbook.

Check out our other boat safety articles to ensure that you’re ready to make this upcoming boating season the best one yet!

FAQ

What determines the right of way in boating?

The right of way in boating is determined by the type of boats involved in the approach, their relative position to each other, and their direction of travel. In general, less maneuverable vessels have the right of way or have more priority over more maneuverable vessels.

What side do you pass in a boat?

What side do boats pass on

When boats are approaching head-on both boats should turn to starboard (the right-hand side) and pass each other port side to port side (left-to-left). If overtaking another boat heading in the same direction, the pass can be on either side, the overtaking boat must maintain a safe speed and distance from the other boat at all times.

Does the bigger boat have the right of way?

Not necessarily, the general principle is the less maneuverable vessels have the right of way. For example, if a motorboat is crossing paths with a sailboat (operating under sail) because the sailboat is considered less maneuverable, then it would have the right of way, and the motorboat would be required to take action to avoid a collision.

One boat is overtaking another, which boat must give way?

One boat is overtaking another, which boat must give way

When overtaking, the boat behind is the give-way vessel and the boat ahead is the stand-on vessel. The overtaking vessel can pass on either the port or starboard side if it’s safe to do so.

Who has right of way sailboat or motorboat?

A sailboat under sail, that is when not using a motor, would generally have the right of way, unless it is in the process of overtaking the motorboat. 

What side do boats pass on?

What side do boats pass on

When boats approach each other head-on, each boat must turn to starboard (right) and pass each other on the port (left) side of the boat.

Where can I order a copy of the Navigation Rules (Rules of the Road)?

Check the FAQ section of the U.S. Coast Guard website for more information on ordering copies of the boating rules handbook. 

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AUTHOR

Hi, I'm Tim and I've been a boat enthusiast for as long as I can remember. I've spent countless hours on the water and love sharing my knowledge and experience with others. When I'm not working, you can usually find me out on my boat with my family, exploring new places and enjoying the beautiful scenery.