Editor's Note: In honor of National Fishing and Boating Week (NFBW), boats.com will be rerunning some of our favorite articles about boating fundamentals. If you're new to the scene, or just thinking about jumping in, this is the place to be; we'll arm you with all the info you need to find the perfect adventure, choose the right gear, know the ropes, and get out there on the water. This story was originally published on boats.com in August 2000 and updated in July 2015.
With a good wind from my back, the little 1.5-horsepower mini-micro engine would move my 12-foot dinghy along at about 3 miles an hour. But it wasnt getting any tailwind, because at the moment the wind was being blocked by a big cabin cruiser that looked, from my perspective, to be about the size of the Mall of America. And it was bearing down on us.
"Don't worry," my buddy said. "We are privileged; he's burdened. I know this. I took a course."
"Huh?" I asked.
"On yeah," he said. "Any boat that's overtaking another has to yield to that boat, and can't do anything that will endanger that boat. It's in the rules."
At that point in my boating career, I hadn't taken any boating courses. But I had common sense. And that common sense told me to get out of the cabin cruiser's way as fast as I could, no matter who was burdened or privileged. I wanted to be privileged to live another day (To find out how to know if you're on a collision course, read Collision Course with a Crossing Boat? How to Know).
Later, when I took my first boating safety course and related that little story to my instructor, he said my buddy had been technically correct, but had I listened to him, I might have qualified to have "He had the right-of-way" on my tombstone. What I did that day goes beyond merely obeying the rules and into an area that one might call common sense or good boating etiquette—although at the time, I didn't know it.
"I'd say the number one unwritten rule you should practice, call it good judgment, good etiquette or what have you, is that if there's ever a question of who has the right of way and you are more or less being challenged for the right-of-way, yield to the other guy; let him go ahead," says Frank Penny, a veteran instructor for U.S. Power Squadron boating safety and seamanship courses. "I don't like to make general statements about any rules, but it's just good sense to relax, let the other guy have the right-of-way and avoid a collision, no matter who has the right-of-way."
For more on unwritten rules, read Fishing: Unwritten Rules and Share the Water: Unwritten Rules of Sailors, Fishermen, Powerboaters, and Paddlers.
Every time I drive my car on a crowded road I am amazed by how a machine can transform one's personality. If you were walking along at the mall and someone stepped out of a store in front of your path, you wouldn't start screaming at that person or threaten him with violence. Yet if someone pulls out in front of your car, likely as not you may honk, scream, curse and generally take on the personality of a wounded bear.
That type of thing can happen in boats, but it's far less common. And that's because there is such a thing as a boating etiquette, a group behavior that almost every boater seems to learn. Penny says that's in part because most boaters consider themselves kind of like neighbors with everyone else on the water, and it's that mindset that is the basis for good boating etiquette.
If you've ever been on a boat that has broken down, run out of gas or become incapacitated in any other fashion, you've probably experienced the feeling of boating as a brotherhood or a community. I can think of at least three occasions over the years in which my boat has broken down and other boaters have stopped, spent more than an hour helping me, or towed me back to a dock, even when it was miles away. That's quite a different experience from what will likely occur if your car breaks down on the freeway.
Penny says there's actually a legal rule involved in this help-your-neighbor policy, at least when you are at sea. "On the ocean, it's actually a requirement that you stop and render assistance to another boat that appears to be in trouble," he said. "And if you think about it, it's a pretty logical rule, because if you want someone to stop and help you when you are in trouble, then you need to be willing to stop and help others when they are in trouble."
But of course, boaters who stop to help each other on a calm, sunny afternoon at the lake, an occurrence that happens hundreds of times a day, aren't doing so to comply with an law or rule. They do it because they are practicing good boater's etiquette, the common courtesy of the water that stems from having a basically benevolent attitude toward everyone else in a boat.
Sometimes this helping attitude can almost make you a little crazy. I can think of more than one occasion on which I have pulled my boat off the main channel of a river and anchored on a lake several hundred yards away because my wife and I wanted to, shall we say, enjoy a little privacy. But virtually every time we've done that, it's only been a matter of time until we've looked up to see someone motoring up to our boat yelling "Engine trouble?," or "Out of gas?"
But for every incident like that, there's been an occasion on which another boater has stopped when I've really needed help. I've had people come onto my boat with tool boxes, pull the cowling off my outboard and actually make engine repairs just because it was clear to them that I was out of my league in trying to fix my own stranded craft.
Another example of this type of courtesy happens in every marina I've visited. Pull up to a dock with people on it and likely as not, a stranger will come running over to help you with your docking lines, or use his foot to fend you off from rubbing your rail too hard against a piling. There are dozens of other little courtesies, like slowing down even when you don't have to, just to keep your wake from causing another boater a problem. These courtesies are usually logical and pragmatic.
Good boating etiquette like this usually comes from experience on the water and learning the unwritten rules that go beyond what's legally required. And that can take years. But the basis for mastering this etiquette is simply learning the written rules, the statutes, the state and federal requirements you must legally follow as a boater, Penny says.
A good place to do this is the basic boating courses that Penny and other Power Squadron members teach in towns across this country. "It doesn't necessarily have to be one of our courses," he said. "There are good courses through the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary, in some cases through the Red Cross; the important thing is that you take the courses and learn the rules." Penny said the statistics show that the majority of boat operators who get into accidents have never taken any boating safety or boat handling course.
If you want to follow the rules by the book, but don't know what book, the actual statutory regulations that govern boaters in North America are the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, and the 1980 U.S. Inland Navigation Rules, which are enforced by federal, state and local authorities and apply to all vessels operating of navigable waters within the United States. Beyond that states, counties and municipalities have their own laws governing boats, just as cities set their own speed limits on their streets. If you take a safe boating course like those taught by the Power Squadron or Coast Guard Auxiliary, you'll find yourself being taught the basics from the two aforementioned statutory rules.
If you've driven a car, as almost any first-time boater has, you'll find a lot of similarities between the rules of the road on land and the rules of the road on water. If you are meeting a boat on the open water, for instance, it has the right of way if its coming from your right. You have the right of way if it's coming from your left. (That's why the running light on the right or starboard side of your bow is green and the one on the left or port side is red).
One really cool variation between land traffic rules and the waterborne version is that it's perfectly kosher to pass on the right, if you can do so safely without forcing the boat you're passing off course or into oncoming boats. And in boating, it's not rude to honk when you pass—it's required. On inland waters, you should beep once to let the boat ahead know you are passing on the starboard side, or twice to pass on the port side.
And that privileged-burdened thing my buddy mentioned does have a basis in fact. In the nautical world, the boat with the right-of-way is said to be "privileged;" a boat without the right-of-way is said to be "burdened." You're always burdened when you pass another boat; the boat being passed should have to do nothing but keep motoring along on the same course.
Dozens of rules like this apply. Boating safety instructors like Penny point out that they are too numerous to be spelled out definitively in a short article like this—though Maritime Rules of the Road: A Primer for Boaters makes an attempt to do just that. There's really no substitute for taking a boating course—unless you've got access to a lake on Mars, or someplace else you'll never encounter another boat.
There is one rule you can learn right here, right now, and it's the very first rule stated in the U.S. Inland Navigation Rules, called the "general rule." It says boaters should give due regard to any possible hazard or circumstance that could prompt a departure from the rules in order to avoid danger. In other words, it tells you that if you are about to be run down by a cabin cruiser, for instance, get out of the cabin cruiser's way. Most of us probably knew that rule before we could read—we just didn't know we knew it.