Basic right of way procedures for motor boats

With no traffic lights, stop signs, marked lanes and clearly defined passageways, it could appear as if a boat driver can simply control how he likes it while steering a boat on open water. Sometimes you can. However, proper and sensible navigation is an important part of responsible boat use. There are boating rules that you should obey to ensure safe boating and avoid accidents.

Most boaters try to avoid disturbing other boaters, even if they do not strictly follow established boat right of way procedures, but not all do so in the generally accepted and consistent way. I’ve watched boats unsafe past other boats, needlessly crossing in front of others, going on the wrong side of a canal in the face of oncoming traffic, boats getting in the way that were not energized, going too fast right after another boat and other things that could be problematic and that can easily be avoided.

Here are some basic power boat right of way procedures. There are other concerns about sailing boats.

  • First of all, do not hurry. Use caution when in close proximity, around other boats, and in areas with navigation problems (sandbars, shallows, reefs, narrow channels, etc.).
  • The most basic right of way event for boats occurs when two motor boats approach head to head. Everyone should steer to their starboard (right) side, which means the boats will safely pass each other from port to port. A brief blow of the horn from the boats signals their intention to do so, although my experience has been that most boaters simply steer the right path without signaling.
  • When a motorboat overtakes another motorboat that is ahead of it, the overtaking boat must avoid the overtaken boat. There are horn signals that can be used (especially in narrow waterways) to indicate which side of the boat the overtaking boat is passing, but the majority of boaters do not signal this.
  • Probably the most common right of way event in boating occurs when two motorboats are on a passing course. Here the one who has the other on the starboard side counts as the right of way and has to avoid the other.

Often times, these procedures are not followed exactly, and in some cases boaters ignore them. It is therefore up to every boat operator to be careful and not assume that the other boater is following the recognized boating rules. I often had the right of way in a temporary situation when it seemed clear that the other boat was not trying to avoid me. So I’ll drive slower and, out of caution, pass behind this boat instead of risking an accident, even though I technically had right of way. When heading to the water, make sure your boat is registered.


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