Whether you’re on a power boat, a motor yacht, or a sailboat, you will need to learn about the rules of the water. One of these key rules is learning who has the right of way and how to give way if needed. Read on for the boating right of way rules and guidelines to follow when onboard.
- Boat Right of Way FAQ
- Which boat has the right of way?
- Do bigger boats have the right of way?
- Which vessel has priority over others?
- Why are boats steering from the back?
- Are there boat right of way international rules?
- Are there boat right of way inland rules?
- Who is required to keep a proper lookout while boating?
- When is a lookout on a vessel required?
- Sides of a Boat
- What is the left side of a boat called?
- What is the right side of a boat called?
- Which side of a boat is port?
- What is the starboard side of a boat?
- What colors for port and starboard?
- What is a starboard tack?
- What is a port tack?
- What side of a boat is the green light on?
- Do boats pass each other on the left or right?
- Why is the driver’s side of a boat on the right?
- Why don’t boats use left and right?
- How to pass a boat from behind?
- What is a buoy?
- What are buoys used for?
- What is a mooring buoy?
- What colors appear on a mooring buoy?
- What does a red cone shaped buoy mark mean?
- What does a green cone shaped buoy mark mean?
- What is the area between a red and green buoy?
- What do yellow buoys mark?
- What is a pull buoy?
- How to use a pull buoy?
- What side of the buoy do you stay on?
- What is a day marker buoy?
- What does a control buoy identify?
- What buoys have white lights?
- How do buoys stay in place?
- What buoy indicates safe water?
- Boat Channel Markers
- YATCO Boating and Fishing Guides
Boat Right of Way FAQ
Which boat has the right of way?
There are a few things to keep in mind when determining what boat has the right of way.
- As a general rule, sailboats, canoes, and those vessels not powered by a motor will always have the right of way as they are harder to maneuver and change course.
- Tugs must not be crossed between their stern and the boat in tow in case there is a hidden line in the water.
- Any fishing vessel with their lines and nets in the water are given right of way.
- When crossing, the boat on the starboard (right) side has the right of way (at night, you will denote the side based on their lights).
- If two boats are approaching head on, both must take corrective action to veer right to allow a wide berth between the two vessels.
- Sailboats have their own rules as well (while under sail, while motoring they are like other power boats):
- The boat that is sailing under a starboard tack has right of way.
- If you are under sail and approaching another sailboat (from behind), you have the right of way since the boat in front of you is under full sail and wind without any blockages.
Do bigger boats have the right of way?
Usually, boats 65ft and under should give way to yachts larger than this as they usually need a deeper draft and have less maneuverability than smaller boats.
However, if a 40ft boat is passing a 20ft boat, the above rules on right of way stand.
Which vessel has priority over others?
Usually, motorized vessels must give right of way to those not “under command” – this would mean sailboats, canoes, Stand Up Paddleboards, kayaks, etc.
Why are boats steering from the back?
Boats are steered from the back since this affords them the best possible space to control the vessel. With most of the weight toward the back of the boat, and the rudder placed here with the engine, the captain is able to steer the boat more precisely and effectively from the rear.
Are there boat right of way international rules?
Most boat right of way rules will be the same the world over. There is always one “give-way-vessel” and one “stand-on vessel” which is the one that remains in place, while the give way vessel moves to accommodate the former.
Are there boat right of way inland rules?
Boat right of way inland rules will be the same as those on other bodies of water. Please refer to question one on who has the right of way in each passing situation.
Who is required to keep a proper lookout while boating?
In order to keep a proper lookout while boating, the captain or operator needs to be on constant alert for any passing vessels or obstructions in the water.
Using your eyes and scanning the horizon, as well as keeping noise and music to a minimum to help stay alert to hear of any calls for help or distress signals is strongly advised. When needed, make use of your radio communications if you need to contact any vessels nearby.
When is a lookout on a vessel required?
A lookout is required on all vessels. Whether you are the sole operator and keeping a proper lookout, or on a larger mega yacht, the main responsibility for a lookout is on the captain.
Sides of a Boat
What is the left side of a boat called?
The left side of a boat is called the port side.
What is the right side of a boat called?
The right side of a boat is called the starboard side.
Which side of a boat is port?
The port side of the boat is on the left side.
What is the starboard side of a boat?
The starboard side of a boat is the right side.
What colors for port and starboard?
To ensure safe passage even at nighttime, all boats and yachts are equipped with running lights to denote which side of the vessel you are passing on.
The boat’s starboard side is indicated by a green light, while the port side sports a red light.
What is a starboard tack?
A starboard tack in sailing refers to when the wind is blowing over the starboard (right) side of the sailboat.
What is a port tack?
A port tack is when the wind is coming over the port (left) side of the sailboat.
What side of a boat is the green light on?
The green light is on the starboard side of a boat.
Do boats pass each other on the left or right?
In an emergency situation, you must pass on whatever side offers clearance and a wide berth. However, when approaching another boat safely, you should always attempt to pass on the right (starboard) side.
Why is the driver’s side of a boat on the right?
This is a question many have asked over the years – especially in places in the world where drivers normally sit on the left side of the vehicle, why is the boat steering wheel on the right? This actually has to do with the right of way questions being answered here today.
Handed down by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), that maintains all boats should keep to the right of oncoming traffic, positioning the steering wheel and the driver on the right-hand side, ensures they have the best view of oncoming traffic and clearance when remaining on the right-hand side in passing.
Why don’t boats use left and right?
Boaters use the terms port and starboard, instead of left and right to avoid confusion. If you are on the rear of the boat, the left is on the opposite side than if you were on the front of the boat looking back at the driver.
Port and starboard never change, so regardless of the orientation of someone on the boat, when they say port and starboard, these can only mean one thing.
How to pass a boat from behind?
Normally, the boat in front will always have the right of way – similar to the rules of the road, if you want to overtake someone, you have to wait for a time when it is safe to do so. At a minimum, you should watch for oncoming traffic, and when it is clear, pass (whichever side has more clearance), by giving a very wide berth, reducing your speed and putting out as little wake as possible.
In an ideal situation, you will communicate with the vessel in front with your horn – two short blasts tells the boat ahead that you intend to pass on their port side; and they should respond by giving two small blasts to confirm their agreement. Then, if passing on the starboard side, the boat behind will give one short blast to signal this, and the boat ahead will agree with one short blast in return.
The one caveat here is for boats under sail (not while a sailboat is motoring), in which case the sailboat (or other non-power-driven vessels) by default has the right of way as explained above.
What is a buoy?
A buoy is a floating navigational marker that is weighed down by an anchor to signal various things in the water — depth, reefs, hazards, moorings, etc.
What are buoys used for?
Buoys can be used for a number of things but often you will see them being used as navigational aids for boaters. You may notice different buoys providing guidance for the following items:
- Channel markers
- Hazards in the water
- Speed markers
- Depth warning
What is a mooring buoy?
A mooring buoy can be found in shallow or very deep waters and acts as a way for boats to tie up their boat for secure anchorage while at sea. Mooring buoys use a much heavier weight than traditional buoys so that boats can tie on and feel secure knowing the mooring buoy can hold their weight in place.
What colors appear on a mooring buoy?
Most mooring buoys will be balls painted white with a red or blue horizontal stripe wrapped around the circumference.
What does a red cone shaped buoy mark mean?
A red cone shaped buoy mark is a “nun buoy” that marks the edge of the channel on your starboard side. They are marked with even numbers and are found when returning from the open sea.
What does a green cone shaped buoy mark mean?
A green cone shaped buoy mark is known as a “can buoy” and acts as the opposite to a nun buoy. They mark the edge of the channel on your port side when returning from the open sea and are marked with odd numbers.
What is the area between a red and green buoy?
The area between a red and green buoy is the channel – this is important to mark so you stay in the deepest part of the water to avoid running aground and to also make it easier for the captain or operator to maintain their course.
What do yellow buoys mark?
Yellow buoys are usually cautionary markers to warn boaters of dangers in the area. These can be anything from obstructions in the water to things like racecourses and firing ranges nearby.
What is a pull buoy?
A pull buoy actually isn’t used for boating right of way navigational aids — it is a foam buoy shaped like a figure eight or that has two ropes connecting two pieces of foam together, used for swimming.
How to use a pull buoy?
To use a pull buoy, place it between your thighs and ease into the pool. You will use the pool buoy to help build arm strength and improve your swimming form by focusing on pulling your body through the water with your arms and avoid kicking your legs thanks to the grip you have on the pull buoy.
What side of the buoy do you stay on?
The side of the buoy you’ll stay on depends on which direction you’re traveling.
Seafarers have often used the expression “red right returning” to remember the red buoy should be on the right or starboard side when returning from open sea into port, and the green buoy on the left or port side.
This would mean that the opposite is true when you are leaving port and heading out into open seas – keep the green buoy on the starboard side and red buoys to the port side when heading out on your boat for the day.
What is a day marker buoy?
A day marker buoy is similar to the nun and can buoys mentioned previously. A red triangle day marker will be placed in the channel with an even number to signal to boaters they are heading upstream if the number increases.
Boaters should always keep this marker on their right.
Whereas a green square day marker will have odd numbers on them and similarly, if the number is increasing, it means they are headed upstream and if decreasing, in the opposite direction.
What does a control buoy identify?
Control buoys are used to mark a restricted area. You will recognize them by their white coloring, with two horizontal orange bands and an orange circle on both sides. They will usually have a word (like SLOW), or another figure or symbol to notify boaters of the restriction.
What buoys have white lights?
Some regulatory and channel marker buoys will have white lights on them.
How do buoys stay in place?
Buoys stay in place through a complex and sturdy system of anchors and weights to ensure the buoys remain where they need to and are also heavy enough to keep a boat in place if need be (like with a mooring buoy). These weights usually include an anchor, heavy chain, galvanized shackles, and a lighter chain nearer the surface of the water.
What buoy indicates safe water?
Fairway buoys indicate safe water – they may also be called midchannel buoys and are white with red vertical stripes with flashing lights.
Boat Channel Markers
What are channel markers?
Channel markers are used as placements to signal to boaters where the channel lies and to stay within them. Going on the outside of these channel markers could cause problems as the water may be shallower or have unseen hazards for boaters.
What side of the channel markers do you stay on?
When staying within the channel markers, you will want the red buoys on your right or starboard side when returning from open water, and green buoys on your left or port side.
When you are heading out into the open water, you’ll want to reverse this – green buoys will be on your starboard side, with red buoys on the port side.
What are information markers?
Information markers are similar to control buoys in that they notify boaters of something based on the symbols and are white markers with orange lines – however, they are marked with orange squares (instead of circles) and usually notify boaters of the locality they are in, upcoming marinas or campsites, etc.
What are intercoastal channel markers?
When traveling on the Intracoastal Waterway, (ICW) which runs from New Jersey, down to the Gulf of Mexico, you will find some unique markers.
Channel markers on the ICW will be signs instead of buoys:
- a square green sign with a yellow square indicates you should keep this marker on your left or port side;
- while a red triangle with a yellow triangle on it means you should keep this marker on your right or starboard side.
- However, when traveling on the ICW, the smaller yellow symbols on both are the overriding guideline so where you see these, follow the above rules.
Many will travel the ICW from the north to head down to Florida (and beyond) for the winter months. For more information on boating in Florida, please see YATCO’s comprehensive guide here.
What are preferred channel markers?
Some waterways may have two channels that you can take, but there will usually be a “preferred channel marker” to indicate which path you should take. These preferred channel markers are buoys with horizontal bands of red and green and will be placed at the junction of the two channels, so you know which one to take. The top color will help determine which one to take — red at the top denotes a starboard-preferred channel; while green at the top signifies a port-preferred channel.
What do the red and green markers indicate?
Red and green markers indicate the channel and will be placed on either side of it, so boaters know they need to stay within the red and green markers to remain in the channel.
When heading out on the water, it’s important to know boating right of rules to keep you, your guests, and other boats on the water safe. If you have taken a boating certification course (which is a requirement in most jurisdictions) then you should already have an understanding of these rules. To explore more of YATCO’s FAQ features, please click here. Regardless of whether you are boat or a yacht, you will all need to heed the same right of way rules when boating. Wondering what the difference is between a yacht and a boat? Read our guide here.
YATCO Boating and Fishing Guides
- Types of Fish in Florida Guide: We’ve seen a number of fish that call Florida home and make this a bucket list fishing destination for many anglers in the world. If you’re wondering what fish are in season when or what types of fish can be found in a number of destinations across Florida, YATCO has a guide for that. For a complete run down on all the types of fish you can catch in Florida, check out YATCO’s guide.
- Sport Fishing Yacht Guide: Many recreational fishers will choose to use the best yacht for the job when it comes to fishing. And you can’t go wrong with a sportfishing yacht – specifically designed to hold all of your fishing gear, optimize space for maneuvering, and the power and stability to take you wherever the fish are. Explore YATCO’s Sportfishing Yacht Buying Guide.
- Flybridge Yacht Guide: Similar to the sport fishing yachts, flybridge yachts are also popular amongst anglers, thanks to their upper decks which offer the perfect height to explore the horizons and scan for fish activity. Learn more about flybridge yachts in our guide.
- Florida Deep Sea Fishing Florida: Deep sea fishing is a special type of fishing in which anglers head out to the depths of the ocean to pull out some really large game fish. You’ll want to look for water at least 100ft in depth, where you can discover fish like 1,000-pound marlin or hooking a big tuna! Learn more in YATCO’s Deep Sea Fishing Guide 2023.
- Boating in Florida Guide: Before you head out on the water for your next big catch of the day, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the rules of the water in Florida. Whether you are a resident, or someone looking to visit and do some fishing, you’ll want to be sure to heed the ways of the water. YATCO created a Boating in Florida Guide for this very reason.
- Boat Financing Guide: Maybe you want to make fishing more than just a charter once or twice a year, and instead invest in your own boat or yacht you can take out any time you want. And in a place like Florida, where the fishing season never ends, it’s the perfect place to buy your next yacht. Learn about Boat Financing in our Guide.
- Boat Maintenance Guide: Now you know the boat you want, it’s important to learn how to maintain it as well. There are a number of factors to consider when it comes to improving the longevity and overall look and feel of your boat or yacht. Learn the proper ways to keep your vessel in good shape with YATCO’s Boat Maintenance Guide.
- Boat Insurance Guide: While certain states (including Florida) and countries around the world may not make boat insurance compulsory or a legal requirement before heading out on the water, it’s still a prudent idea to secure boat insurance before slipping off the dock. Learn more about the importance of boat insurance with our guide.
To start your search for your next boat or yacht, click for our ocean-going motor yachts for sale, or cruiser boats and cruising yachts for sale. If you’re really ready to take your cruising to the next level, why not upgrade to an expedition yacht and see the world up close from the bow of your own yacht?
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