Boating Tips


Posted 11/19/2010

Rules of the Road: Driving Your Boat Safely is Easy – Just Follow the Rules

When we hit the highway, we know that there are certain rules and laws that we must obey. Things like stopping at a stop sign, using your turn signals to let other drivers know your intentions, keep to the right, pass on the left, and so on. 

On the water, there are similar rules and laws regarding the proper ways to drive your boat. Officially called Navigation Rules, boaters commonly refer to them as “The Rules of the Road.” The Rules describe the roles and responsibilities of operating a boat.

For accuracy, we’re using the U.S. Coast Guard’s Navigation Rules, International-Inland (COMDTINST M16672.2D), a tome that addresses nearly any boating scenario. For simplicity, we’ll be addressing only the Inland portions of the Rules.

Eyes Wide Open
Designate a member of your crew to be the official lookout. The lookout’s job is to watch for other boats – in all directions, floating debris, shoals, or other potential dangers. 

If you’re going it alone, keep your eyes open for trouble, especially in low-visibility situations, bad weather, and areas of high volumes of boat traffic.

Unless you’re putting through a no-wake zone or a stretch of water that has a speed limit, how fast you drive your boat is up to you. 

The Rules say that you must drive your boat at a safe speed – factoring in visibility, boat traffic, weather conditions and your boat’s handling characteristics – to enable you to avoid a collision by maneuvering or stopping your boat.

I See Another Boat, Now What?
Some of the most misinterpreted and least observed of The Rules of the Road are situations where boats encounter each other. The Rules provide simple boat driving solutions to the most common boating scenarios – meeting head-on, overtaking (passing), and crossing the bow of another boat.

In each situation, the “give-way” vessel yields to the other boat, the “stand-on” vessel ought to maintain its course and speed.

This is important: Contrary to popular belief, The Rules doesn’t grant privileges, such as “right of way” (with one specific exception) – they assign responsibility to the boat operator to take action to avoid collisions.

Here are basic examples of typical on-water encounters:

Crossing Situations
The Rules specify that when two boats meet in a situation where one boat will cross in front of the other, the boat approaching from your starboard (right) side is the stand-on vessel, and you’re the give-way vessel.

The give-way boat changes its course and speed to pass behind a boat that’s crossing in front of the give-way boat. The crossing boat is the stand-on vessel, so this boat keeps the same speed and course.

Each of these boats is to sound a short (one-second) blast from its horn just prior to this maneuver.

Overtaking Situation
Unlike asphalt, driving on the water allows you the option of passing another boat on the port (left) or right (starboard) side, depending on the conditions.

Overtaking (passing) another boat works like this: the boat being passed is the stand-on vessel, and the boat doing the overtaking is the give-way vessel. 

If you (the give-way vessel) want to overtake the other boat on its port side, honk your boat’s horn twice and pass at a safe distance. The stand-on vessel will maintain its course and speed, and will toot its horn twice to acknowledge your intentions.

To pass on the starboard side, the give-way vessel blasts the horn once and overtakes the other boat at a safe speed and distance. The stand-on vessel will issue one short horn blast, while keeping its same speed and course.

When boats meet head-on (each boat on a course that would take it into the bow of the other), neither is the stand-on vessel; both boats are give-way vessels.

Passing port-to-port is the preferred method of avoiding a head-on collision, because it’s similar to driving a car on a narrow road – a maneuver that most boaters are familiar with. Each boat sounds a short horn blast, alters its course to the right, and the two boats pass each other’s port sides.

If you meet head-on and decide to pass starboard-to-starboard, each boat blows two short horn blasts, alters its course to the left, and the boats pass each other’s starboard side.

Looking out for #1
We’ve seen that the boating Rules of the Road are simple, but that doesn’t mean the driver of the other boat is paying attention. 

Assume that the people driving the boats around you have no idea you are there. For all practical purposes, you are invisible to them.

Always expect other boaters to know nothing about The Rules, and be ready to slow down, stop, or make a quick turn to avoid becoming a casualty of the Weekend Warrior.

Don’t ride on pride – do whatever is necessary to live to boat another day.



COMDTINST M16672.2D, NAVIGATION RULES (International-Inland)