The open water has fewer signposts and markings than the highway, but boat traffic follows some general rules. Some of these guidelines include unwritten boating rules — to ensure everyone has a good time and returns safely. The most basic boating etiquette rules, called boat “give-way” rules, govern how boats pass each other. These rules govern how boats interact on the water, helping to prevent crashes and reduce injuries. Other aspects of proper boating etiquette help save time and keep shared areas clean and safe.
Refreshing yourself on boating etiquette can make you a better boater. Whether you’re a newbie buying your first boat or an experienced skipper who spends lots of time on the water, knowing these rules helps you share the water safely.
Boating give-way rules
The give-way rules also called boating right of way rules, dictate the flow of traffic on the water. Learning the boat give-way rules is important before getting your boating license. These rules provide clear guidance on who has the right of way (the “stand-on” vessel), who needs to yield (the “give-way” vessel), and how each vessel should proceed.
Passing in opposite directions
If you encounter another boat coming in the opposite direction, keep to the right as you would in traffic on the road. They’ll do the same so that you pass “port to port” (e.g., left to left).
Order of operations
The type of boat determines the right of way. Unpowered boats like rowboats and kayaks have the right of way over all other vessels. A sailboat under wind power (not using its outboard motor) has the right of way over powerboats. Learn more about the different types of boats.
Give way to cumbersome vessels
Any vessel with limited maneuverability (for any reason, including size) has the right of way over more nimble vessels.
How to properly give way
The boat give-way rules indicate that the give-way vessel should change course or speed so the stand-on vessel can continue unimpeded. The vessel being overtaken should maintain course and speed (or slow down gradually) to avoid surprises for the passing vessel. When two boats cross each other, the one coming from the right is the stand-on vessel.
When two sailboats pass each other, right of way goes to the vessel with the wind coming over the starboard side. When overtaking a wind-powered vessel, leave enough space or pass downwind of them so as not to block their wind.
General rules of boating etiquette
Following proper boating etiquette can save lives and reduce the chance of damage to vessels. Not all boating etiquette rules relate directly to safety, but courtesy on the water is essential too. Common boating etiquette rules about safety include:
At anchorage, go with the flow
Tie off the same way the other boats have, so all boats drift the same way in the current. According to Discover Boating, variations like line length and number of ties can cause accidents. Learn more about how to anchor your boat.
When in doubt, slow down
Never cruise fast through places where people might swim, including anchorages or marinas. Respect posted speed limits.
Give help at sea
If you see another boat in distress or someone stranded in the water, lend a hand or relay messages back to rescue authorities. The law requires that you help others in distress if it doesn’t endanger your vessel.
Don’t make excessive noise
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, sound is amplified over the water, so music, generators, or other loud equipment can disturb your neighbors.
Don’t throw anything into the water, especially plastic packaging. Be sure that anything you bring with you returns to shore.
Don’t waste time on the ramp
Prepare your boat before you approach the ramp and clean your boat after you’ve gotten it out of the water. Don’t make others wait longer than necessary to hit the water. The same goes when re-fueling — fill up, pay, and move your boat elsewhere so others can access the pumps. Learn more tips on when and how to clean your boat.