Which Boat Has The Right Of Way? – Things You Need To Know

Driving a boat on the water is a lot like driving a car on the road, except you usually don’t have a bunch of road signs telling you what to do. This means you will need to know the rules of the road before you get out on the water.

As a general rule, there is no right of way on the water. The boat on the starboard side will maintain its course, while the boat on the port side will have to maneuver around the boat maintaining its course. In non-technical terms, the boat to your right has the right of way.

Technically right of way does not exist on the water. Boaters use terms like stand-on and give-way, which will be explained in this article.

This article will discuss all the rules necessary to know before you get on the water.

Stand-On vs. Give-Way Vessels

A stand-on vessel is on the starboard side of a boat. The give-way vessel is on the port side of a boat. The give-way vessel will always steer around the stand-on vessel.

These terms may seem a bit confusing but they are technical terms. To keep it simple, if there is a boat to your right, you are the one that needs to avoid hitting them. They do not have to change their course at all. Let’s look at the animation below for an example.

As you can see from the animation above the give-way vessel must avoid the stand-on vessel because it is on its starboard side.

There are a lot more scenarios you need to be aware of.

Head On Meeting

When two boats are going down a small channel they meet head-on. This is a prevalent situation in tight areas. This is very simple to navigate through. You should always pass head-on boats just like you would on the road. You always stay to the right keeping the car on your left. The same rules apply on the water in this situation. See below for a visual example.

As you can see from the animation above. It’s very easy to handle a head-on situation. Let’s look at passing or overtaking another boat.

Overtaking Or Passing Another Vessel

When it comes to passing another vessel from behind, it is very easy to do. You can pass on the starboard or port side. One horn blast will signal to the other vessel that you are passing them on their starboard side. Two horn blasts will signal to the other vessel that you are passing them on their port side. See below for the visual example.

Passing another boat is usually no issue. It will just depend on how many boats are on the water. In my personal experience most people will not use their horn to signal they are passing you, so just keep that in mind when you see someone behind you.

There are different rules when the boats are different types, such as barges, sailboats, and kayaks. Keep reading to see those guidelines.

Barges, Sailboats, And Kayaks – How To Maneuver

You will encounter a lot of small boats and large boats when out on the water, and just because they are on the port side of your boat does not necessarily mean they are the give-way vessel. Barges or large tanker boats will almost always be a stand-on boat. Kayaks and sailboats will also be stand-on boats when you are in a power boat.

A good rule of thumb to remember is, the boat that can maneuver more easily will be the give-way vessel.

An example of this is would be, if you are in a powerboat and a sailboat is under sail and is coming from your port side, you should still give way to the sailboat under sail. It is much harder for the sailboat to maneuver.

Almost all the small recreational boats will need to maneuver out of the way of barges and tankers since it is very difficult for them to turn.

We also need to take a look at the lighting on boats to better understand navigation rules at night.

Boat Lighting For Night Navigation

When it comes to navigating open waters at night, all the same rules apply. The only problem is you cannot see the other boats that easily. This is why boat lighting is a requirement at night time. This helps avoid a lot of collisions.

There are a few basic lights that you need to have on your boat at all times. Different types of boats may require different types of lights as well. Take a look at the list below for the different types of lights needed on your boat.

  • Red Light – A red light is required on the port side of your bow.
  • Green Light – A green light is required on the starboard side of your bow.
  • White Light – A white light is required at the stern of your boat.
  • Steaming Light (Sailboats) – A steaming light is a white light halfway up the mast facing forward. It means the sailboat is under engine power at this time, not sail power.

To get a better understanding of where lights should be placed look at the image below. The dotted outline circles are white lights. All of the lights are required by law.

Lights on a boat will help keep everyone safe on the water. Always check your lights before taking your boat out, just in case you do end up getting stuck on the water after sundown.

Let’s look at port lighting.

Port Lighting – How To Enter And Exit Ports

The red and green lights will be found on buoys when leaving and entering ports.

When leaving port you need to keep your vessels in between the two lighted buoys. The red light will be on the left buoys and the green lights will be on the right buoys. This will direct you out of the port to open waters. This also keeps your boat from running aground in shallow areas. See the animation below for an example.

This is leaving port and heading out to open waters.

When you return to port you need to reverse the lights. Red will be on the right, so just remember “Red Return, Right.” The green lights will be on your left. This is to guide you into the port and avoid shallow areas you cant see. Check out the image below for an example.

When you return the lights will be flipped on the buoys.

Final Thoughts

I could talk about boat navigation rules all day but I think we discussed the biggest ones in the article above. The basic tactics we mentioned earlier will help you navigate the waters. The lights section discussed how boat lighting works and what types of lights you need on your vessel. The important thing to remember is to always be cautious out there and never expect boaters to do what they are supposed to. Most boaters don’t know the actual rules of the road.


Boatlifehq owner and author/editor of this article.

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