Boating has a code of conduct; a set of rules to be not only polite, but also legally compliant on the water. This boating etiquette covers a wide range of topics from basic good manners like helping a neighbor with dock lines to how to officially call for assistance on the radio. Some issues are common courtesy while others are requirements.

Friends On A Boat

Above: Friends on a boat enjoying a day on the water. Photo by Zinkevich on Pond5.

Offering Assistance

Providing help falls into two categories – the nice to do and the must do. If you see a boat about to dock, you can offer to catch their dock lines. It’s a nice gesture. Never assume – always ask, because some captains have their procedure down and they don’t want assistance.

On open water, you’re legally obligated to assist if you come across a vessel (or person) in distress. This may involve simply relaying radio messages to a rescue or towing agency, but you must render some kind of assistance as long as you don’t put yourself or your vessel into harm’s way in the process. If in doubt, contact the Coast Guard, describe the situation and ask for guidance.

Wake Rules

When cruising past docks, small rowboats or sailboats, launch ramps and swimming areas, mind your wake. Slow down because wakes cause shoreline damage and can swamp small craft. Most harbors have a “no wake” or “5 knot” rule typically posted on a buoy or a marker. Be courteous to recreational fishermen – slow down and avoid their lines. (See below for rules regarding commercial fishing vessels.)

Launch Ramps At Public Docks Manners 

Be sure to launch and retrieve your boat on a ramp quickly to make room for others who may be waiting. Once the boat is off the trailer, move it to a dock or beach quickly. While on the ramp, don’t load/unload gear or guests, wipe down or drain the boat, or take time to put on the cover.

At a public space like a fuel dock or loading area, tie up, fuel or load, and move along. Others who are waiting need to keep station (keep the boat in place) while they wait and if the wind or current are running, that’s not easy, especially for new boaters. It could be you who’s waiting, so be courteous and quick.

Anchorage Manners

When you anchor, you’ll need to follow an unofficial code of good behavior some of which may help prevent a collision. Anchor far enough away from other vessels so that you won’t collide even if the wind or current change and you swing on your anchor. If all boats are using only one anchor and you tie off with two (fore and aft) you’ll swing differently and you could become a hazard.

Whether you’re anchored or at the sand bar, respect your neighbors. Keep your music at a polite level. Drive slowly through an anchorage and watch for swimmers and snorkelers. Don’t run a generator after 9:00 pm or before 7:00 am.

Raft-ups are gatherings of multiple boats that tie together to party or to spend the night in an anchorage. A very old term for this is “a gam” which used to refer to two whaling ships meeting and visiting one another. Boats in a raft-up usually belong to a group so don’t just join any raft-up you see. If you’re part of the group, respect the boat you’re tying to. Put out fenders, don’t approach until the captain of the other boat waves you over and in the case of sailboats, look up to make sure you aren’t at risk of locking masts if the boats roll. Don’t throw a large wake as you pass a raft-up because jostling boats can cause damage to one another. Again, be on the lookout for swimmers nearby.

Manage Your Waste

Trash doesn’t go overboard near a shoreline, in a harbor or at an anchorage. When offshore and if your waste is organic like fish guts, you may be able to throw it in the water but be conscious of where you are in terms of others. Plastic never goes overboard. The Coast Guard mandates the posting of onboard placards regarding waste (and oil) disposal depending on the size of your vessel. Check the rules to make sure you comply.

If You See Something, Say Something

If you’re a guest on someone’s boat and you notice something, mention it to the captain. He or she may not be aware of the situation, or they may explain that it’s normal. If you or someone else isn’t feeling well, mention that too so you don’t cause an onboard emergency. Don’t go below without telling anyone because that will make you sicker. Keep your eyes on the horizon and stay out in the fresh breeze.

Radio Conduct

The VHF radio is a communications and emergency tool. Channel 16 is for hailing and distress calls only so use it to make contact with another vessel or to call for help. Then agree with the other party which frequency you’ll switch to for further communication. Don’t chat on Channel 16. The radio isn’t a toy so teach kids how to use and respect it and never make a false distress call because that’s against the law.

When approaching bridges, us the designated channel to hail the bridge tender, especially if the bridge needs to be opened for you to pass. Most tenders monitor channels 9, 13 or 16. Cruising guides should tell you which to use for a particular bridge.

Emergency or awareness calls come in three versions: Mayday, Pan-pan or Securite. You call a Mayday only in case of immediate danger to life, property or the environment. If you’ve run out of gas, call a towing agency not a Mayday. Pan-pan is an international urgency call indicating an situation that is not an immediate threat to either the vessel or the people onboard. Both mariners and the Coast Guard can call a Pan-pan. A notice to mariners (about hazards or extreme weather) may be sent out as a Securite but it’s only used by the Coast Guard, not by individual boaters.

If you come across a hazard (floating debris, small vessels in distress, etc.) you can call it into the Coast Guard by hailing them on Channel 16 and then switching to a working frequency to describe the situation. They will determine whether or not to send assistance or broadcast a Securite about the matter.

Rules Of The Road

Nautical Rules of the Road are navigation rules and they’re legally binding. They’re the accepted system of right-of-way that you must follow to avoid a collision on the water. There are many of these rules and they’re detailed in the Coast Guard’s “Navigation Rules and Regulations Handbook” that most vessels should (and some must) carry aboard. Let’s cover just a few here. (There are mnemonics and tools like the LightRule that can help you learn and remember these rules.)

Note: In the following scenarios, the “stand-on vessel” has the right of way, and the “give-way vessel” needs to accommodate the other.

  1. With two boats coming head-on, if possible, both vessels turn to starboard and pass port-to-port to avoid a collision.

  2. The boat on the right has the right-of-way and is the stand-on vessel with boats in a meeting or crossing situation. (At night, if you see a red navigation light, the boat is approaching from your right and is the stand-on vessel.)

  3. If a vessel is being overtaken, that captain has the responsibility to maintain course and speed. The overtaking vessel is the give-way vessel and must accommodate the other. 

  4. If a vessel is restricted in its ability to maneuver (due to its size or draft, or if it has lines or nets out while commercial fishing) it’s the stand-on vessel and must be avoided. 

  5. A sailboat under sail has the right-of-way over a powerboat. If the sailboat is running an engine, it’s considered to be a powerboat even if the sails are hoisted.

  6. Human powered vessels (kayaks, SUPs, canoes, etc.) have the right-of-way over any other vessel including a sailboat.

  7. When two boats are under sail, the one on the starboard tack (wind coming over the starboard deck first) has the right of way over the one on the port tack. If both are on the same tack, the leeward (downwind) boat has the right-of-way.

From common courtesy to serious navigation rules, there’s a way to conduct yourself while aboard. Learn and respect this etiquette to be both friendlier and safer on the water.

Written by: Zuzana Prochazka
Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to and, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site,