Just as there are rules that apply when you are driving on streets and highways, there are waterway rules that apply when you are driving your boat. These rules are used internationally. (For U.S.A.: and are also enforced by the United States Coast Guard and local agencies.) You should be aware of these rules, and follow them whenever you encounter another vessel on the water.
Steering and Sailing Rules and Sound Signals
Whenever two vessels on the water meet one another, one vessel has the right-of way; it is called the “stand-on” vessel. The vessel that does not have the right-of-way is called the “give-way” or “burdened”vessel. These rules determine which vessel has the right-of-way, and what each vessel should do.
The vessel with the right-of-way has the duty to continue its course and speed, except to avoid an immediate collision. When you maintain your direction and speed, the other vessel will be able to determine how best to avoid you.
The vessel that does not have the right-of way has the duty to take positive and timely action to stay out of the way of the Stand-On vessel. Normally, you should not cross in front of the vessel with the right-of-way. You should slow down or change directions briefly and pass behind the other vessel. You should always move in such a way that the operator of the other vessel can see what you are doing.
The general Prudential Rule
This rule is called Rule 2 in the International Rules and says, “ In obeying and construing these rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision, and to any special circumstances, which may render a departure from the above rules necessary in order to avoid immediate danger.” In other words, follow the standard rules except when a collision will occur unless both vessels try to avoid each other. If that is the case, both vessels become “ Give-Way ” vessels.
Rules when Encountering Vessels
There are three main situations that you may encounter with other vessels which could lead to a collision unless the Steering Rules are followed:
Meeting: (you are approaching another vessel head-on)
Crossing: (you are traveling across the other vessel’s path)
Overtaking: (you are passing or being passed by another vessel)
In the following illustration, your boat is in the center. You should give the right-of-way to any vessels shown in white area (you are the Give-Way vessel). Any vessels in the shaded area must yield to you (they are the Give Way vessels). Both you and the meeting vessel must alter course to avoid each other.
If you are meeting another power vessel head on, and are close enough to run the risk of collision, neither of you has the right-of way Both of you should alter course to avoid an accident. You should keep the other vessel on your port (left) side. This rule doesn’t apply if both of you will clear one another if you continue on your set course and speed.
When two power driven vessels are crossing each other’s path close enough to run the risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on the starboard (right) side must keep out of the way of the other. If the other vessel is on your right, you must keep out of its way; you are the Give-Way vessel. If the other vessel is on your port (left) side, remember that you should maintain course and direction, provided the other vessel gives you the right-of-way as it should.
If you are passing another vessel, you are the “Give-Way” vessel. This means that the other vessel is expected to maintain its course and speed. You must stay out of its way until you are clear of it. Likewise, if another vessel is passing you, you should maintain your speed and direction so that the other vessel can steer itself around you.
Other Special Situations
There are three other rules you should be aware of when driving your boat around other vessels.
Narrow Channels and Bends
When navigating in narrow channels, you should keep to the right when it is safe and practical to do so. If the operator of a power driven vessel is preparing to go around a bend that may obstruct the view of other water vessels, the operator should sound a prolonged blast on the whistle (4 to 6 seconds). If another vessel is around the bend, it too should sound the whistle. Even if no reply is heard, however, the vessel should still proceed around the bend with caution. If you navigate such waters with your boat, you will need to carry a portable air horn, available from local marine supply stores.
Fishing Vessel Right-of-Way
All vessels that are fishing with nets, lines or trawls are considered to be “fishing vessels” under the International Rules. Vessels with trolling lines are not considered fishing vessels. Fishing vessels have the right-of-way regardless of position. Fishing vessels cannot, however, impede the passage of other vessels in narrow channels.
Sailing Vessel Right-of-Way
Sailing vessels should normally be given the right-of-way. The exceptions to this are:
1. When the sailing vessel is overtaking the power-driven vessel, the power-driven vessel has the right-of-way.
2. Sailing vessels should keep clear of any fishing vessel.
3. In a narrow channel, a sailing vessel should not hamper the safe passage of a power-driven vessel that can navigate only in such a channel.
Reading Buoys and Other Markers
The waters of the United States are marked for safe navigation by the lateral system of buoyage. Simply put, buoys and markers have an arrangement of shapes, colors, numbers and lights to show which side of the buoy a boater should pass on when navigating in a particular direction. The markings on these buoys are oriented from the perspective of being entered from seaward (the boater is going towards the port). This means that red buoys are passed on the starboard (right) side when proceeding from open water into port, and black buoys are to port (left) side. When navigating out of port, your position with respect to the buoys should be reversed; red buoys should be to port and black buoys to starboard.
Many bodies of water used by boaters are entirely within the boundaries of a particular state. The Uniform State Waterway Marking System has been devised for these waters.
This system uses buoys and signs with distinctive shapes and colors to show regulatory or advisory information. These markers are white with black letters and orange boarders. They signify speed zones, restricted areas, danger areas, and general information. Remember, markings may vary by geographic location. Always consult local boating authorities before driving your boat in unfamiliar waters.