Boating Right-Of-Way Rules (With Pictures)

Understanding right-of-way rules on the water is important, and many boaters fail to do so. Right-of-way rules are taught in boating education programs, but many boaters either don’t take the program or forget. If you haven’t taken a boating education program, make sure that you aren’t required to by your state.

Many states require boaters to have a boating license which can be obtained by taking a NASBLA-certified boaters safety program and passing an exam (see if you need to or not by clicking here). With that being said, here are right-of-way rules based on the United States Coast Guard.

When going head on

Always pass by veering to the right when heading straight on to another vessel.

When meeting from the side

Always “give way” for a power boat that you are meeting if you are on their port (left) side. However, if you are heading to a power boat’s starboard (right side), you are considered the “stand-on” vessel and should maintain course. However, always give way no matter the circumstance to sailboats and other non-powered boats such as kayaks, paddleboards, etc.

When overtaking

You can overtake on whichever side you deem is the safest. However, blast your horn once if you are passing to the right side of their boat and twice if you are passing to the left.

Vessels you need to always “give way” to

Some vessels require you to give way in every scenario unless doing so creates unsafe conditions. These vessels include:

  • Sailboats
  • Barge ships
  • Utility vessels with poor maneuverability
  • Government vessels
  • Fishing vessels with nets that restrict maneuverability
  • Kyaks
  • Canoes
  • Paddleboats
  • Other non-powered vessels
  • Vessels leaving a marina or channel when you are entering

Additional right-of-way rules (important!)

Along with the rules I’ve listed above, there are a few more important rules you’ll need to follow. These include:

  • A vessel that is overtaking another vessel must keep clear of the vessel being overtaken.
  • Never cross near the bow of a large ship.
  • A vessel that is being overtaken must take action to allow the overtaking vessel to pass safely.
  • A vessel that is approaching a bend or narrow channel must give way to a vessel that is already in the bend or channel.
  • A vessel that is leaving a marina has the right-of-way over a vessel that is entering a marina (unless there is heavy current outside of the marina such as on a river, then it would be the other way around).
  • In times of restricted visibility, all vessels must travel at an operatable speed and with their navigational lights on. This can make understanding who has the right-of-way more difficult as you may have to use the color of a light to understand which side of a boat you are approaching. More on that later.
  • Vessels that are towing a skier, wakeboarder, etc. still need to follow the navigational rules, however, always prioritize the safety of the skier and stop if needed.

The more and more you apply these rules, the more natural it will become, and you will start doing them without even thinking. Although maneuvering through water is generally easier than through land in a car, these rules are still important to follow, so you don’t make anyone angry or cause any accidents.

Understanding right-of-way rules at night or during low-visibility days

At night or during days with restricted visibility, it’s hard to tell where the front of a boat is and where the back is, so it may be hard to determine what side is which. This is why during these times, navagational lights are required.

A red navagational light is on the port (left side) and green is on the starboard (right side). You can see this in the images I’ve provided above or in this image below. Theres also a bright white light on the top of vesels.

So if you see a red light you are approaching it’s port side, so you should give way. If you see both red and green light, you are heading strait on and should veer right. Lastly, if you see a white light, the vessel is either anchord or you are approaching it’s stern.

Boating navigational tips

Besides following the regular right-of-way rules, here are a few other tips I recommend boaters follow to stay safe while navigating through waters.

  • Always check the weather forecast and water conditions before heading out.
  • Have a float plan and share it with a friend or family member.
  • Don’t enter any restricted areas such as cargo straights, especially if there is a cargo ship on way.
  • Carry all required safety equipment on board, including life jackets, flairs, fire extinguishers, and a horn or whistle.
  • Stay alert and be aware of other boats, swimmers, and obstacles in the water.
  • Follow all boating laws and regulations, including speed limits and right-of-way rules.
  • Use navigation equipment, such as charts and a GPS, to plan your route and stay on course.
  • Keep a lookout for markers and buoys, which can indicate hazards or navigational information.
  • Have a means of communication such as marine VHF radio or cellular phone with you.
  • Avoid too much alcohol or drug use while operating a boat. The legal limit is 0.08 BAC in most states.
  • Have a basic knowledge of first aid and emergency procedures in case of an accident.

If you follow the right-of-way rules and these 11 tips, not only will you be much safer, you’ll avoid being that one annoying boater who doesn’t know what he is doing.