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Basic Navigation - Who Has The Right of Way

My last article dealt with proper navigation lighting and in the article I referred to a few rules of the road, specifically when it relates to which boats have the right of way.  There seemed to be a lot of discussion on the topic, so I figured I would write about it this week.  If you drive a car, then you understand that there are situations where one vehicle has the right of way compared to another.  The same concept applies to vessels on the water and understanding the rules is very important.  On many occasions, lack of understanding of these rules had led to dangerous situations and sometimes even loss of life. 

First, let me provide a few definitions:

COLREGS – Abbreviation for Collision Regulations and is an international set of rules defined to prevent collisions between vessels as sea.  It must be noted that some regulations differ slightly on inland waters (lakes and rivers) so it is important to know the rules in the area(s) that you boat. 

Give Way Vessel – This is the vessel that is required by COLREGS to change course and/or speed to avoid a potential collision with another vessel.

Stand on Vessel – This is the vessel that is able to maintain current speed and course as defined by COLREGS.

The Basic Rule

The basic navigation rule states that if two vessels are navigating a body of water and are on a potential collision course, one of them must give way.  Unless the vessels are approaching head on, one of the vessels (Vessel A) will be to the starboard and the other (Vessel B) will be to the port.  The rules specify that the vessel to the starboard is the stand on vessel and the vessel to port is the give way vessel.  This basic rule assumes that both vessels are of the same type and have equal freedom of movement.  However, not all vessels are created equal.  Whether it is due to size, type or situation, not all vessels on the water have the same ability to maneuver.  It is because of this reason that there is an order of precedence based on vessel type and activity that determines which vessel should give way when approaching another.  This order of precedence always supersedes the basic rule.

The Basic Rule.  The vessel on the starboard side is the stand on vessel.

Vessel Order of Precedence
The higher a vessel is on the list, the higher the precedence is when encountering another vessel on the water.  In other words, a vessel in the second category on the list must give way to another vessel that is in the first category and so on. 

Priority 1 - Vessels Not Under Command – A vessel that is not under command is one that currently has no propulsion and is not under way.  An example would be a vessel at anchor.  All other vessels that are underway must stay clear of vessels in this category.  Keep in mind that this does not mean dropping anchor so you can fish in a busy shipping channel is okay.  We do need to use some common sense when on the water.

Priority 2 - Vessels Restricted in Ability to Maneuver – Some vessels are restricted in maneuverability due to the nature of the vessel.  For example, a vessel that is engaging in dredging operations may technically be underway but its ability to move about freely is limited due to its operation. 

Some boats cannot move around as freely due to their operations.

Priority 3 - Vessels Constrained by Draft – Some larger vessels are restricted in their maneuverability because of the draft that they require for navigation.  If there is a ship that has a draft of 20 feet heading through a channel, it may be required to stay in that channel to avoid running aground.  If this is the case, it is considered a stand on vessel when approaching other vessels underway that do not draft as much and therefore have more maneuverability.  

Larger vessels are restricted because they must stay in deeper water.

Priority 4 - Vessels engaged in Fishing – No, this does not refer to Bubba sitting on his bass boat with a case of beer and a fishing pole but it does refer to vessels engaged in commercial fishing.  Because they may have nets and lines deployed in the water, they are often not able to maneuver as well as other vessels. 

Priority 5 - Sailboats – Next on the list is sailboats but this only applies if it is under sail.  If a sailboat has its engine(s) running and propeller engaged, it is considered a powerboat under the rules.

Sail boats only fall into priority 5 when they are under sail.

Priority 6 - Powerboats – This one is easy.  If your boat has an engine and you are using it for propulsion, you are a powerboat.

Priority 7 - Sea Planes – Last on the list is a sea plane.  If a sea plane is looking to land on water, it is the responsibility of the pilot to ensure that landing the aircraft does not interfere with the course of any vessels already on the water.  Once a sea plane is on the water however, it is considered a power boat.  

Once a sea plane lands on the water, it is considered a boat.

One Final Rule

One last rule to remember:  It is always prudent and required, when necessary, to break any of the rules in order to avoid collision.  In other words, even though you may be the stand on vessel in a given situation, you are still required to do whatever is necessary to avoid a collision even if it means breaking one of the rules listed above. 

Happy Boating

Captain Frank
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  1. For the answer to this and other important boating SAFETY questions, join Atlanta's Boating Club or, at a minimum, take an ABC class!

  2. General consensus used to be it was the biggest boat that had the right of way. This belief has been further refined to the biggest jerk has the right of way.

    Rules of the road on the water are simple and save lives and property. Let's not kill each other out of ignorance or apathy. Think about how what you are about to do is going to sound in court

  3. Ha you just covered this in a class I took with you the other day. I never thought about a scenario like this photo or class would have lasted longer...

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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