Do Boats Pass Right Or Left? Basic Rules (Explained)

When you are out on the water, you will want to make sure you know the proper navigation rules that come with being a boat operator. 

Below, we have included the basic and most important Navigation Rules of boating:

Boat types

Passing Rules For Boats

Whether a boat should pass on the right or the left depends on the vessel and the circumstance.

To know who has the right of way, you should know the difference between the port and starboard side. While you are looking to the vessel’s front, the port side is the vessel’s left side. While you are looking to the vessel’s front, the starboard side is the vessel’s right side.

This eliminated any confusion caused by using the terms “right” and “left.”

These terms can be confusing because they are subject to change depending on which way you are facing.

Passing Rules for Sailing Vessels:

  1. When a sailing vessel approaches another sailing vessel, the vessel with the wind on its starboard side has the right way.
  2. The sailboat with the wind on the port side must give way to the other vessel.
  3. When both sailboats have the wind on the same side, the passing boat has to give way to the other vessel.
  4. Sailing vessels should avoid sailing through a ship channel.
    • Because large vessels need to go a certain speed through the channel, they cannot give way to a sailing vessel.

Passing Rules for Power Vessels:

  1. When two power vessels approach each other head-on, both vessels should alter their course to pass each other on their port side.
  2. When two power vessels are attempting to cross, the right of way is given to the vessel on the starboard side.
    • This vessel that does not have the right of way must take early action to avoid a collision.
    • This vessel either needs to stop or alter course to starboard.

When a Power and Sailing Vessel Meet:

  1. A power vessel is to give way to a sailing vessel.
  2. When a sailing vessel is overtaking a power vessel, this is the only time the sailing vessel will have to give way.

Passing and Navigation Rules for All Vessel Types:

  1. Both sailing vessels and power vessels must keep clear of any vessel they are overtaking.
    You overtake a vessel when you approach it from behind within a 135-degree sector from the vessel’s stern.
  2. When in a channel or harbor, all vessels must keep to the starboard side of the channel.
    • This is similar to road rules in the United States.
  3. When you are in a harbor, you need to keep out of the way of any large ships.
    • This includes any ship over 500 tons or 50 meters in length.
  4. It would be best if you also were cautious of creating a wake in the harbor or a river, especially when this wake can be dangerous to other vessels.
  5. While in a channel, you must never put down your anchor.
    • Channels are made to get in and out of quickly, and speeding boats might not see you anchored in the middle.
  6. While in a channel, a smaller craft must keep out of the way of larger vessels. 
  7. If the approaching vessel does not give way, regardless of who is supposed to, you will want to avoid a collision by giving way yourself.
    When you do this, you should generally turn to your vessel to starboard to avoid collision with the other vessel, but you can alter your course to port if that is best for the situation.

When Do The Boat Passing Rules Apply?

The Navigation Rules apply to all inland and internationally traveling water vessels. 

Although there are some differences between International and Inland Rules, the most important requirements are the same.

You will also want to make sure you know the specific rules applicable to your state or where you are traveling.

The rules apply to all watercraft, whether powered by power engines, sails, paddles, or other manual methods.

Other Factors To Think About When Passing Another Boat

1) Choose A Safe Speed

Before you worry about going right or left, you will first want to be conscious of your speed.

Safe speed is defined as a speed where proper action can be taken to avoid a collision.

Safe speed varies depending on your particular circumstance.

Some factors that help to determine safe speed are:

  • State of Visibility
  • Traffic Density, which includes all other vessels.
  • Your maneuverability includes how long it takes to stop or turn.
  • The wind, waves, and current.
  • If you happen to have radar equipment, you also need to consider your radar equipment limitations.

2) Collision Avoidance

Along with safe speed, you need to determine what your risk of collision is.

You must use everything you can to determine if collision risk exists and take all precautions to avoid it.

Any action taken to avoid collision should be done with plenty of time and should not be pushed until the last minute.

Altering your course to avoid collision should be visible to the other vessel. If not, sound signals may be used.

You should always pass another vessel at a safe distance.

3) Responsibility Rules

As the boat operator, you are responsible for the safety of your vessel and passengers and other vessels and their passengers.

This means you need to give special considerations to unique circumstances, no matter the right of way.

A power-driven vessel that is underway should stay out of the way of vessels that are:

  1. Not under command.
  2. Restricted in maneuverability.
  3. Fishing.
  4. A sailing vessel.

A sailing vessel that is underway should stay out of the way of vessels that are:

  1. Not under command.
  2. Restricted in maneuverability.
  3. Fishing.

Things To Consider In Low Visibility:

  1. Every vessel should be using a safe speed.
  2. A power-driven vessel should be ready for an immediate maneuver at any time.
  3. Every vessel should do everything they can to avoid a close quarter encounter with other vessels.
  4. Every vessel also needs to properly utilize its lights so that other boats can see them. 

Rules Regarding Lights

You should know what the light signals mean when there is low visibility.

This can be when there is fog or if it is between sunset and sunrise.

Each light means something different, and you will want to know what they each mean:

  1. A masthead light is a white light placed over the centerline of the vessel that faces forward.
  2. Sidelights are green and red. The green light is placed on the starboard side, and the red light should be fixed to the port side.
  3. A stern light is a white light placed over the stern that faces backward.
  4. A towing light is a yellow light placed similarly to the stern light.
  5. An all-around light is a white light that is continuously showing a full 360 degrees.
  6. A flashing light is a light that flashes at regular intervals.

Here’s a separate post we have written on rules for navigational lights on boats!

The lights that your vessel requires largely depends on the vessel length.

You will want to check the lights that are required on your specific vessels.

Not only do you need to know which lights are required for your vessel, but you need to know when to use them and which ones to use.

Rules Regarding Sounds:

In addition to light signals, you should also know your sound signals.

Sound signals can be beneficial when you are trying to communicate with other vessels.

The sound signals are normally connected to signifying your intent to other vessels:

  • One short blast means that you intend to pass a vessel on your port side.
  • Two short blasts mean that you intend to pass a vessel on your starboard side.
  • Three short blasts indicate that you are backing up.

These can also be used when you are overtaking someone, and you want them to know what side you are passing them on. If someone signals to you, the polite thing to do is repeat the signal to convey to the other vessel that you understand and accept their signal.

If at any time you are in doubt about what another vessel is doing, you can sound five short blasts to indicate that you do not agree with or understand their proposed movement.

You will want to make sure that you properly utilize the navigation rules, light signals, and sound signals. You can be fined or faulted for not utilizing these rules properly. 

While all the information can be found online, you can get even more training from taking a boater’s safety course to get into the specifics with you and lay out the specific rules and regulations for your state.

The most important rule is to stay safe and keep a lookout for all other vessels. Each boat operator is responsible for staying safe on the water both for their sake and the sake of others.

Here’s an article we have written with everything you need to know about rules for sounding the horn on a boat.

Final Thoughts:

Make sure you are following the rules of the lake, river, or ocean.

Your safety and the safety of others is paramount to anything else.

Be safe out there!

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