In boating, I know that having the right of way is much different than driving, what are the rules and how does this work?

  • 3
    Where I'm from, you're required to have a boat license, so most people know the rules. But there are a lot of areas where I think it would be prudent to always be defensive, and not expect everyone to yield right of way if you're the stand on vessel.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 0:37
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    @ShemSeger Good point, I know where I am you can boat as long as you have a valid drivers license so I don't think everyone is familiar with the rules
    – Tom
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 0:40
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    The rules are often complicated, and location-dependent. On Sydney Harbour, boats under power must give way to vessels under sail, who must give way to ferries, who must give way to vessels under tug, who must give way to Naval vessels, who must give way to moored or anchored vessels.
    – Hugh
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 1:09
  • 3
    A general rule of thumb is that the more maneuverable craft gives way to the less maneuverable craft. This is why sailboats typically have the right of way. They don't have much maneuverability without losing the wind. However, they instantly lose that right of way to a much larger vessel, such as a cruise ship or aircraft carrier, which is very obviously less maneuverable. (If this rule of thumb is sufficient to answer your question, I'll make it an answer)
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 2:52
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    @CortAmmon You forgot Rule 0. AVOID COLLISIONS AT ALL COSTS. :)
    – Aron
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 2:56

3 Answers 3


To get the complete answer, you would need to study up on your Navigation Rules, International and Inland, also known as NAVRULES and as the 1972 COLREGS (Collision Regulations). This book is the size of a small novel, and has the force of a treaty within those nations that have agreed to it. NAVRULES describes things beyond just giving way, like maintaining safe speed and lookouts, lighting and sounds, and so on.

The answer already given by @renesis covers Rules 13, 14, and 15, regarding overtaking, meeting, and crossing situations respectively, and the actions which shall be taken by the Give-Way (Rule 16) and Stand-On (Rule 17) vessel.

I wish to add Rule 18, regarding responsibility between vessels, often called the order of precedence, and given the mnemonic "New Reels Catch Fish So Purchase Some":

  • N: Not Under Command- a vessel which due to circumstances beyond its control cannot maneuver (i.e. mechanical issues)
  • R: Restricted Ability To Maneuver - a vessel which due to its work (i.e. dredging or scuba support) cannot maneuver easily
  • C: Constrained by Draft - a vessel which must remain in the deeper part of a channel and cannot maneuver into shallower areas
  • F: Fishing - a vessel engaged in commercial fishing or trawling operations
  • S: Sailing - a vessel propelled solely by the wind
  • P: Power Driven - a vessel propelled by a mechanical device
  • S: Sea Plane - an aircraft in the act of landing on or taking off from water

In short, vessels lower on the list give way to vessels higher on the list. Note that most "boats" in the sense of typical pleasure craft would be defined as power driven for purposes of Rule 18.

  • 1
    +1 This is the only correct answer. Of note is Sea planes will normally land in designated 'lanes' that give them absolute priority and maybe exclude all other craft, especially in congested areas.
    – user5330
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 7:22
  • Yes definitely +1, but to point out the differences I mentioned on another answers comments. Inland rules (for USA), does not recognize Constrained by Draft. Additionally, a boat moving down river always has precedence to a boat moving upriver no matter what. It is also the down-bound captains responsibility to initiate meeting signals. And again, another divergence is that a boat crossing a river NEVER has precidence over a boat following the river whether up or down.
    – Escoce
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 3:30
  • Additionally, sailboats and fishing vessels are a bit mixed. A vessel fishing using trolling lines (red over white masthead lights) must stay clear of a sailing vessel, but a sailing vessel must stay clear of a fishing vessel engaged in trawling (green over white mast head lights).
    – Escoce
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 3:33
  • Then of course, is the boat greater or smaller than 20 meters. That changes the rules in and near channels and traffic separation zones somewhat. So you can see it's not so cut and dry.
    – Escoce
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 3:34
  • Oh and what about in and near restricted visibility? The rules change again, no one had precedence
    – Escoce
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 3:38

A quick google search turned up a reasonable answer.

The following looks like good general set of rules, but it may vary depending on where you are, which you didn't say.

Source for the following


Sailboats under sail power only are always the stand-on vessels in crossing and meeting situations, so look out for them when you’re under power. Also, commercial vessels restricted by their draft or by fishing gear, such as nets or trawls, hold privilege over all recreational vessels, including sailboats.

Passing a boat

  • Your vessel: If you’re following another vessel in a river, narrow canal, or marked channel, you’re the give-way vessel, meaning you have the greater burden of responsibility should anything go wrong when you try to pass. Your vessel, in this case, is also called the burdened vessel.

  • The other vessel: The vessel you want to pass is the stand-on vessel. It’s privileged and the skipper can deny you passage if she thinks it’s unsafe (or doesn’t like the color of your paint).

  • Asking permission to pass: You sound two short blasts from your horn, signifying you’d like to pass the skipper on his port (left) side.

  • Receiving permission to pass: He signals back with two short blasts to say “Okay!”

  • Permission denied: She blasts the horn five times, signifying there’s danger involved in such a maneuver. If she doesn’t respond at all, consider it five short blasts and don’t attempt to pass.

Crossing paths

  • Your vessel: You’re on a crossing course with another vessel that could result in a collision if neither boat changes course or speed.

  • The other vessel’s on the right: It’s the privileged or stand-on vessel and you must let it pass in front of you.

  • The other vessel is on the left: You’re the privileged or stand-on vessel and you must pass in front of the other vessel.

Meeting a boat head-on

  • Your vessel: You’re meeting another vessel head-on.

  • Both vessels: You should both steer to the right to such a degree that each can see the other’s intentions to pass safely portside to portside (left to left, for the landlubber).

When all else fails When it seems like no one but you knows or follows the rules, the rules say you must give way to avoid a collision. If you exercise stand-on privilege and an accident results, you’ll be held at least partially responsible.

  • 1
    I would also comment that tankers and large commercial transport (ferries) have right of way over personal craft.
    – John
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 8:28
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    This might not be the best answer, it does not include details about, power source (row, sail, motor) and directions are right and left which are not nautical terms. Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 13:45
  • regurgitating a google answer is an unsound practice when lives and property are at stake. while the answer is partially correct the First source should be a United States Power Squadron Safety Class.
    – SkipBerne
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 15:25
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    My recollection from sailing school a long time ago is that you in a small sail boat only had right of way over power boats under 40 feet in length. Above that, you had to give way. Sailing on the Rhine, all commercial shipping in shipping lanes had priority over the small boat I was in. So, this answer is not correct, and the real answer is location specific.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 16:28
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    It's a lot more complicated than this. There is a whole book and set of rules for how boats meeting should behave. Additionally there are differences in the international rules compared to the inland rules of various countries ( called states in maritime lingo )
    – Escoce
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 17:17

The short version is that whoever can most easily get out of the way, does.

Others have answered with the legal, official rules, and if you are at all serious about boating, you need to learn these. But if you are out boating and need to figure out what to do quickly, this rule of thumb usually works.

The other thing to remember is that if you are a driver of a small recreational boat, you are always going to be able to get out of the way more easily than a working boat, a bigger vessel or a sailboat, so don't get in their way in the first place.

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