Since there are no yellow or white lines or stop signs on bodies of water, it can be difficult to understand who has the right of way in boating. Right of way rules (often referenced as the "rules of the road" or navigation rules are specifically defined maneuvering regulations designed primarily to avoid a collision between vessels. There are many rules and they differ by type of vessel, the operations that vessel is involved in at the time, and where the vessel is located (on inland or offshore waters).

Learning and memorizing all of them is a tall order for boaters of all experience levels, but it’s imperative to know the basics and then have the proper reference tools aboard to consult for all the more nuanced regulations.

5 Boating Right of Way Basics

  1. Vessels under sail (without auxiliary power engaged) have right of way over powerboats in most cases. There are exceptions as described above and in an overtaking situation.
  2. When crossing, the boat on the right (approaching from starboard) has the right of way. At night, you’ll see a red light moving across your horizon to the left. If there is a constant speed and bearing, you’re on a collision course and need to take evasive action.
  3. When meeting head-on, each vessel must alter course to starboard if possible to give a wide berth to the oncoming vessel. At night you’ll initially see both red and green lights.
  4. Any vessel overtaking another must keep clear of the stand-on vessel. You must keep clear if you’re coming up from behind and passing any vessel even if you are under sail and are coming up on a powered vessel. At night you’ll see a white light.
  5. When approaching another vessel whose intentions aren’t clear, take evasive actions early and make them clear in order to communicate effectively with the other vessel. In other words, slow down and make any course changes large enough to be understood and consistent (don’t drive haphazardly).
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