Basic Boating Behavior For Beginners

April 10, 2013

Okay new boaters…why do you think they call it the “Rules of the Road” if you’re on the water? Well, despite the confusing name, it’s all about relating your boat-operating experience to something you’re likely already familiar with…driving a car. But, although they may have some things in common, it’s important that you take some time to understand the differences.

You see, these rules are all about avoiding the single biggest critical incident that can happen on the water…a collision with another boat. Just as you instinctively know that the first person to arrive at a four-way stop in a car will be the first one to proceed, there are boating equivalents that need to be followed.

The biggest difference, of course, is that automobiles have one key safety feature that’s missing from boats. On a boat, you don’t have brakes. When one vessel is bigger or under power (as opposed to under sail), or is on a course that will intersect with another vessel, you have to know who goes where and who does what to keep everyone on both boats safe. Nobody wants to have an accident so just as we all learned in driver’s education, it pays to practice a little defensive boating.

Here are some of the basic rules you should know if you’ll be piloting a boat. Remember, the more traffic and the tighter the channel, the more alert you should be at the helm. As important as these rules are, however, let common sense be your guide. If the captain of the other boat is not paying attention or is otherwise impaired, do what you have to do to avoid a collision. In other words, use these rules as a guide right up until your real-life scenario dictates otherwise.

1. Know the order. There’s a pecking order for boats regarding their right-of-way and yielding obligations. Generally speaking, you can go by the rule of thumb that the bigger the engine and the more maneuverability a boat has, the more it has to give way to smaller, less maneuverable vessels. That being said, here is the basic order:

a)     Boats being passed by another vessel.

b)    Boats being towed by another vessel or otherwise restricted.

c)     Sail boats or any other non-powered vessel.

d)    Power boats that are not restricted in their ability to maneuver.

e)     Sea planes.

2. Meeting situations. When coming up (head to head) with another boat, you should generally pass port to port. That’s your left to the other vessel’s left. This typically gives you more visibility and maneuverability to avoid a collision. The boat with the right of way (see above) is required to maintain its course and its speed until the boats pass each other.

3. Overtaking situations. When one boat is passing another, there are requirements for both vessels. Remember that the boat being passed always has the right of way (see above). The boat that is being passed also must hold it course and speed if possible until the overtaking vessel has safely passed.

4. Crossing situations. For the most part, a boat approaching from your right has the right-of-way. However, vessels restricted in maneuverability have the right-of-way over sailing vessels, and sailing vessels have the right-of-way over power vessels that are not restricted in maneuverability.

5. Signaling your intentions. Even with these widely accepted and well-followed basic rules of the road, there are still sometimes when a little boat-to-boat communication will come in handy. Using the horn or whistle on your boat, here are the most common ways to signal another boat.

a)     One whistle blast: Pass port to port.

b)    Two whistle blasts: Pass starboard to starboard.

c)     Three whistle blasts: My engines are in reverse.

d)    Five or more rapid whistle blasts: Danger!

Sure, there are some things you need to understand to be safe out on the water. That’s true of just about any new activity you dive into. But with a little common sense and practice, all this will become instinctive and second nature, just like when you get behind the wheel of a car.