Know the Rules of the Road

Understanding the basics can help you avoid dangerous situations

three sport fishing boats at sunset
The Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and the Inland Navigation Rules Act are collectively known as the Rules of the Road.© Los Sueños Resort and Marina / Pepper Ailor

Recreational boating is unique in that most jurisdictions allow consumers to purchase a vessel and use it without training or licensing of any kind. Regardless of experience, all boaters should be familiar with the Navigation Rules of the Road, which are essentially right-of-way rules to assist boaters in avoiding collisions on the water. The rules are formalized in the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and the Inland Navigation Rules Act, collectively known as the Rules of the Road. The COLREGS are applicable on waters outside established navigational lines of demarcation, while the Inland Rules apply to vessels upon the inland waters of the United States.

Boat Traffic Can Be Intense

I was in Morehead City, North Carolina, during the 2018 Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament and was amazed at the amount of boat traffic in the waterways. It seemed like every day, we were put in a difficult situation as we entered the narrow channel into our marina. On multiple occasions, a small center console would exit as we were entering with our 65-foot sport-fisher, leaving us with little room to navigate due to shallow water on each side of the channel.

In each instance, the center console was lingering in the middle of the channel, unaware of the seriousness of the situation. A couple of blasts from our horn eventually got their attention and they maneuvered back to their side of the channel, but only after some tense moments for our captain. This type of situation is partly to blame on the fact that many boaters are unaware of the draft and limited maneuverability of big sport-fish boats compared to smaller vessels, but also because they are not familiar with the Rules of the Road.

We are unable to cover every rule and its contents in this article, but several of them are directly relevant to the scenario above. To begin with, Rule 14 states that vessels approaching head-on shall alter course to starboard so each will pass port to port. In this regard, boating is similar to driving a car on the highway.

captain navigating boat through marina
Be aware of the limited maneuverability of larger vessels, especially in narrow channels or marinas.© Los Sueños Resort and Marina / Pepper Ailor (2)

Narrow Channels

Rule 9 specifically covers the procedures for narrow channels. The rule states that any vessel proceeding along the course of a narrow channel shall keep near to the outer limit of the channel that lies on its starboard side as is safe and practicable. The rule further states that a vessel of less than 20 meters in length, or a sailing vessel, shall not impede the passage of a vessel that can safely navigate only within a narrow channel. Hence, any smaller boats in the scenario above should have altered course toward their starboard to the outer limit of the channel, or even outside the marked channel if possible, to avoid impeding the passage of the much larger inboard-powered sport-fisher entering the marina.

The Boater's Responsibility

Lastly, Rule 2 requires that due regard be given to all dangers of navigation and collision. Specifically, this allows boaters to depart from the rules if necessary to avoid immediate danger of collision. This can occur when there are a few boats in the immediate vicinity of one another or perhaps when another boater is simply not paying attention. In such a case, it is a boater’s responsibility to take the necessary actions to avoid a collision.

No matter the size of the vessel we operate — from center console to megayacht — we are still required to know the rules. Be mindful of the deeper draft and limited maneuverability of larger boats next time you are on the water. In the meantime, an electronic copy of the Rules of the Road can be downloaded from the Coast Guard's Navigation Center website. The rules are fairly easy to read and will give you a better understanding of your requirements as a boater in certain situations.