“Jeez, could you stay a little farther out,” the fisherman groused. I was out for an early morning paddle, and I’d already diverted away from the shoreline more than usual to avoid his casting range from the marsh.

Since that was hard to explain in a quick phrase, I stumbled for a reply, coming up with only “I just...”

“I see where you’re going,” he replied. And then he muttered under his breath, but the two words carried just fine across the quiet harbor: “How rude!”

For the next five minutes, I paddled harder than usual, turning my annoyance into accelerated forward motion. Did he think he OWNED the shoreline? Didn’t he understand that I’d already considered his casting space and adjusted my course to allow him room to fish? Didn’t he GET IT?


Power and sail operators observe the Rules of the Road, but are they obeying our unspoken rules?

Once my knee-jerk reactions were past, it occurred to me: perhaps there is an unspoken but commonly-understood-among-fishheads distance to stay away from a casting zone. I wasn’t trying to be rude, but perhaps I was ignorant. Perhaps I was—gasp—scaring the fish!

But as a non-angler, how could I know the difference between “rude” and “acceptable” when it comes to distance from the shore for non-fishing craft?

I knew who would tell me the truth, even if it made me look bad: boats.com fishing expert Lenny Rudow. So once I was back at my desk, I asked him: Do fishermen have unwritten/unspoken rules about how far away the rest of us should stay?

Of course it should have been obvious that the answer was “yes.” Sailors certainly have such rules. And I had never thought to share them with non-sailors—they are so ingrained I consider them common sense, so I’d just assumed people were “rude” if they didn’t follow them. So what if all those other groups—even the high performance guys—were all saying “How rude!” when we met each other on the water, just because I had never learned their private rules?

“Consider it a matter of courtesy, not legality.”

As Lenny put it, “Consider it a matter of courtesy, not legality.” We all have to follow the Rules of the Road, but we also need to consider the specialized perspective of others. And since we have to fit our addictions onto the same playground, maybe sharing our own personal views of “common sense” will help us share the water.

To get us started, here’s my list.


Sailboats are generally slow, which means they can't change course very quickly.

Top 5 Sailor’s unwritten Rules

  1. Most sailboats are pretty slow, and it may take us longer than you expect to change course. So my sense of personal space is probably larger than yours. Anything closer than four boat lengths away (80 feet for a 20 foot boat) is too close.

  2. Any time a powerboat crosses my bow within that zone, it is at best rude and at worst dangerous. Even a small wake will slow down or even stop a sailboat in its tracks. (And all wakes look smaller when you’re looking down on them from a steering station.)

  3. If you intentionally alter course to go across my bow, that is even more rude.

  4. When racing (several boats heading in approximately the same direction), we become even more protective of our “zone;” any nearby boats (sail or power) will disturb both the wind and the water, potentially skewing the results.

  5. Please be aware when transiting (much less anchoring in) a race course that has been established with buoys or racing marks. Those racing sailboats are actually trying to get to specific targets on the water, and they have to do it the hard way, with no engines. (And yes, our top speed is pretty slow, but we are still working really hard to beat everyone else.)

Okay, now that I’ve shared my rules, here are several other perspectives. I learned a lot from reading these, and obviously my co-editor Lenny Rudow learned a lot from reading my list. “I find it really funny you'd rather we cut behind you - something I never knew!” he told me. “Fishermen with fishing lines astern always prefer someone cut in front of us... That said, please don't try to cut ten feet in front of the bow of an anchored fish boat, to catch the "perfect" angle on the wind!” Here’s the rest of Lenny’s list.


When the fish are running, fishing boats cram in close together to make their catch.

Top 5 Fishhead’s unwritten Rules

  1. Don't cut within 100 feet behind a boat at anchor, because you'll break up the chum slick; same goes for a boat trolling, because you may snag a trolling line (which could be right up on the surface, even 100 feet back).

  2. General angler's rule of thumb: any time a boat of any type passes within casting distance (call it 40 yards) while we’re fishing, it's too close.

  3. Don't plow through that school of fish. What we're worried about here is visible breaking fish. You see the splashing, often punctuated by diving gulls. Schools like this are candy to a fisherman because we can see and cast to them, but they're shy about coming up to the surface. Any sort of boat moving through can shut them down in a heartbeat.

  4. Don't cut close in front of a boat trolling lines. Yes, sailboats have the legal right-of-way over a recreational fishboat even when it's trolling, but forcing us to change course can cause tangled lines and missed targets.

  5. To other anglers: When a group of boats is drift-fishing or trolling over a spot, either fall in line and do the same or skedaddle - never drop anchor in the middle of the fleet, or you screw up everyone's ability to pass over the hot spot.

For more, read Fishing: Unwritten Rules by Pete McDonald.


Though it looks like Miss GEICO has just blasted past a bunch of sailboats, this photo was taken via telephoto lens on a closed offshore racing course (the only place Miss GEICO runs).

High-Performance Powerboats

Sailors and fishermen are often united by their annoyance with the speed and volume of high performance powerboats, since we are out there “for a reason” and those guys look like they are just mindlessly burning fuel. Now that I’ve gotten to know boats.com’s high-performance powerboat expert Matt Trulio, I realize they are out there “for a reason” too, and it’s not just to keep those Saudi princes happy: they want to have fun and challenge themselves. And that sounds pretty familiar.

When I asked Matt for his list of unwritten rules, he only passed along one—but it’s definitely something I had never considered:

“Unless you have a valid reason (need of assistance, people in the water ahead, hazard in the water) beyond your inherent belief that we "just need to slow down," please don't wave your arms wildly to signal us to slow down. That’s for two reasons:

  • We think something is wrong and false alarms scare everyone unnecessarily.

  • Some of our boats (those with big-pitch propellers and aggressive gear ratios) are hard to get back on plane.”

While we’re moving fast, let’s step into the shoes of two other motorized specialties: PWC and Towboats. Brett Becker covers both topics for boats.com, so I asked him for his unwritten rules. The answers were quite different, reinforcing my theory that each group has its own distinct perspective.


PWC expert Brett Becker recommends  the chaos theory  when trying to predict the course of these nimble craft.


When trying to steer clear of personal watercraft, Brett advised caution: “Chaos theory always seemed appropriate when referring to how PWC riders behave on the water. So give them a wide berth, because you never know when one will dart in another direction. And if there are many riding in a pack, don't ‘split’ them with your boat.”

Brett’s rules from the towboat perspective were more exacting.


Most lakes have specialized rules that specify the direction you can pull a boarder.

Top 5 Towboater’s Rules

  1. Watch out for my skier/boarder, especially when s/he is down or waiting to start.

  2. Don't follow a skier or boarder; pass with a wide berth or back off 100 yards.

  3. Most lakes stipulate pulling skiers/boarders in a counterclockwise direction. Be aware of that.

  4. Watch for the "skier down" flag in states that mandate its use.

  5. Do not jump our wakes with a PWC while we are pulling a boarder.


Stand up paddleboards like flat water, which often leads them to busy harbors like Newport, RI.

Top 5 Paddler’s unwritten Rules

Human-powered craft like paddleboards and kayaks usually hug the shoreline, which is out of the way of all but the smallest boats—but potentially in the casting zone of shoreline fishermen (like my new friend). Whether just off the rocks or crossing a channel, the world looks different at paddle-pace.

  1. I can’t maneuver very fast, so please don’t come too close.

  2. To that powerboater speeding by: Your wake is more bothersome than your speed, so please don’t slow down to “maximum wake” when you get close.

  3. To the fisherman casting from the shore: I can’t see your fishing line unless it happens to glint in the sun. That means I can’t judge the distance to it, or avoid it. So don’t cast just in front of where I’m paddling.

  4. Also for that fisherman: I don’t have any idea how far out your next plug will land. You, on the other hand, can judge my time and distance quite well, since I’m paddling at a set speed in a fairly consistent direction. I’m sorry if I’m in your way, but I won’t be here long.

  5. If you want me to paddle farther away next time, ask nicely.

Representing Our Watersport

Understanding the rules of engagement for other groups is really important, because each of us represents more than just ourselves to the outside world: rightly or wrongly, we represent our entire subset of the boating population. And that means we need to be especially careful of the impression we leave behind. As a lone paddleboarder, I have to accept that my new fishing friend now thinks everyone on a standup paddleboard is rude and inconsiderate. And he has to realize that from now on, I will assume all casting fishermen think they own the shoreline.

Considering Our Communication

All of these lists have one theme in common: Don’t Come Too Close. And how we get across our desire for more space or a change in direction has a drastic impact on how it will be received. My shoreline fishing friend could’ve said, “Next time, could you please stay a little farther away so you don’t scare the fish?” While asserting his wishes, he also would’ve acknowledged my right to enjoy the beautiful shoreline.

I’ve since heard from other local fishermen that this particular guy has, shall we say, an inflated sense of required personal space. But I’m glad he yelled, rather than just fuming silently. Because as Brett Becker put it, “We all have our boating peeves, don't we?” That fisherman made me realize that we need to share our private sense of what is “rude” out on the water, where the rules are a little different from everyday life.

Have an unwritten rule to add for your chosen water sport? Share it here, and maybe we can all learn to get along on our favorite playground.