Boaters: Who has the Right of Way?

Click on the image above for an app that will test your knowledge of the nautical rules of the road.

Click here for an app that will test your knowledge of the nautical rules of the road.

Boats are zipping past in all directions — sailboats, powerboats, high-speed ferry-boats, tankers, and an occasional car-carrier, not to mention scores of little kids in Optimist prams representing the local junior sailing programs from the half dozen local yacht clubs. “That was close! How do you know how to avoid them all,” asks one of the amazed passengers onboard the schooner that I captain as my summer job in Newport, RI.

“First, you have to realize that there are no lines like on a highway out here — boats can come from anywhere. You have to know the rules of the road and who has the right of way for each situation,” I explain, “It also helps to have good depth perception and spatial relationship skills. Prioritize those closest to you first:  Is their bearing changing, and will they pass in front or behind you?” While I think about the many ongoing situations, many of the maneuvers come to me somewhat automatically, based on some lengthy experience.

I find myself explaining  starboard tack (wind coming over the starboard side) having right of way over port tack sailboats, and that sailboats under sail generally have right of way over all powerboats, with the exception of the big ships transiting the channel who are restricted by their draft or ability to maneuver only within the deep water of the channel. I refine my right of way talk by explaining that two sailboats on the same tack means that the windward boat is obligated to stay out of the way of the boat downwind. And that any boat overtaking another should keep clear.

My passenger seems to be nodding, but a bit overwhelmed with the complexity when I say that even when I have the right of way, I often avoid close calls or being pinned into uncomfortable situations by making early and significant course corrections that let the other boat know my intentions.  I also don’t hesitate to use the radio to arrange a mutual passing situation when two boats are nearly head-on.

We encounter hundreds of boats during our five-trip-a-day routine in this busy port city. My biggest concerns are with small inflatables, jetskis, and sea-kayakers who explore around the docks without much concern for sound signals, security radio calls, or common sense. A vigilant and constant lookout is required, as is the ability to concede a “you first” politeness on occasion, especially among the other commercial skippers running similar passenger vessels. Sometimes I’m surprised I’m able to keep calm and my blood pressure in-check, and I know that only comes from really knowing the rules of the road and being courteous and conservative to boot. For a really good in-depth explanation of the rules of the road, I recommend Farwell’s Rules of the Nautical Road.  Be safe.

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