Who Has the Right of Way When Sailing?

Who Has the Right of Way When Sailing? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Before you can understand who has the right of way when sailing, it is important that you understand who creates the regulations on the water. Multiple bodies have created sailing laws, and safety directives involve sailing ships. International and U.S. based organizations have created a mostly cohesive book of law regarding the use of waterways. This includes which ship has the right of way when sailing. Each country will have its own set of local laws, but there are internationally accepted "rules of the road".

In the context of laws regarding ships, a sailboat is one that is propelled solely by wind power. Even if that ship has a motor, if it is not on and in gear, then it is considered a sailboat. When your boat's engine is on and in gear, it is regarded as a powered boat.

Avoiding a collision is more than just determining the right of way; you also need to be able to understand the placement of the other ship in relation to your own. Perspective can be challenging on the water, where there are not a lot of landmarks to help you figure out if you are on a collision encounter or not. Here are several ways to figure out if you are going to avoid or intercept the other boat.

The best tool is your compass. If you take a bearing of the other ship and then a short time later take another bearing, then there should be a discrepancy. If not, then you are on a collision course. You can also line up the other boat with an object onshore if it is within sight to determine if there is any change in their movement direction. Regardless of which ship has the right of way, if the other ship should be the one moving and it is not, then you must take evasive action.


Table of contents

International Laws

These laws are in effect on the high seas and waters connected to them for any vessel that floats. There are laws pertaining to all aspects of sailing and the type of boat. If you intend to sail across high seas, then you will want to familiarize yourself with them.

Maritime Law

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Maritime law, known as admiralty law, or admiralty, the body of rules that determines the actions of ships and shipping." This is different from the International Laws of the Sea in some cases.

Local and Inshore Laws

If you are in America, then it is a good idea to have a copy of the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules aboard your boat. You should also be aware of the basics of all aspects of sailing law before you begin. There are also digital copies you can keep on a device. There are specific regulations regarding the way boats interact on Western Rivers, the Great Lakes, and other inland bodies of water within North America. The United States Government Printing Office is responsible for the Navigation Rules of the Road, which you legally need to have a copy of on your boat if the vessel is over 39.4 feet long.

Regulations on Right of Way Based on Type of Boats Involved

We are only going to look at three scenarios for sailing right of way. However, other types of boats will have their own rules and regulations in place. If you need to know more, you can read about them on the website for the National Maritime College. Below we have broken down the regulations for who should be the one to turn concerning sailboats in several instances.

Two Sailboats Interacting

The following steps are the general rules for the right of way when two sailboats are involved.

  1. Whichever boat has the wind from the direction of the starboard rail has the right of way.
  2. If both ships have wind coming from the same direction, then the one downwind has the right of way.
  3. If both ships have wind coming from the same direction and one is overtaking the other, then the vessel being passed always has the right of way.

A Sailboat and a Powered Boat Interacting

Below are standard rules of engagement for powered vehicles against sailboats. There may be different laws in your local area. Check before sailing.

  1. Sailboats have right of way over powerboats in almost all cases. The exception being when the sailboat is overtaking the powerboat and certain unique situations.
  2. If two boats are crossing, then the one on the starboard side has the right of way. In situations where it is dark, you will be able to see a red light moving across your horizon to the left, and if this remains a constant, then you are on a collision course and should evade.
  3. During head-on meetings between ships, they must both change their course to starboard to create as much room as possible. In the dark, you will see red and green lights and must change your direction to starboard.
  4. If you are overtaking another vessel, then they have the right of way. In the dark, you will see a white light to indicate you are approaching the rear of a boat.
  5. If you are not confident what the other boat is planning to do, then you should slow your ship, change course early, and allow them to see your intention. This is the safest way to stop a potential collision, regardless of who has the right of way.

Regulations Based on Location

There will be a unique set of laws and regulations for the water, depending on where you are located. This is true for almost every country around the world, but we will focus on American and international laws below.

Offshore and International Locations

International Laws of the Sea take over once you reach the high seas. The right of way in this location includes the following.

  1. Whichever boat has the wind from the direction of the starboard rail has right of way.
  2. If both ships have wind coming from the same direction, then the one that is downwind has right of way.
  3. If both ships have wind coming from the same direction and one is overtaking the other, then the boat being passed always has the right of way.

For larger ships meeting smaller ones, the rules are as follows.

  1. Sailboats must give way to larger vessels.

Maneuverability is all-important when it comes to who needs to give way. There is a list, and the lower down you are on the list, the more leeway must be given because the less maneuverability you will be able to control.

  • If a boat is disabled
  • If a boat is hard to move (e.g., dredge, barge in tow, etc.)
  • If a boat is too large to move quickly (e.g., freighter)
  • If a boat is actively fishing (e.g., trawler, other commercial fishing boats, etc.)
  • If a boat is being rowed
  • If a boat is under sail propulsion
  • If a boat is a recreational powerboat

Inland Locations

The following is a section taken directly from the Navigation Amalgamated International and the United States Inland Navigation Rules created and distributed by the United States Coast Guard. You can read the entirety of the document on the United States Coast Guard website.

"The Rules do not grant privileges or rights; they impose responsibilities and require precaution under all conditions and circumstances. Power-driven vessels are to keep out of the way [...] and either give-way [...] or stand-on [...] to vessels not under command or restricted in their ability to maneuver, sailing vessels or vessels engaged in fishing, ascending or descending a river [...]. Similarly, all vessels should avoid impeding the safe passage of a vessel constrained by her draft [...], navigating a narrow channel [...], or traffic separation scheme [...]."

Additional Regulations

You will also want to also read up on the regulations for the Western Rivers and the Great Lakes, depending on where you will be sailing.

Collision Avoidance Tactics

There are several things that you should be doing any time you are on the water, which will make a collision with another ship less likely. They include the following.

  • Be aware of the rules for your ship and location. The weather conditions and sight ability does not come into play in determining who is given right of way.
  • The greatest cause of accidents is not having a look-out. It is expected that all sailboats will have someone looking and listening at all times for the presence of other boats in the area.
  • Traveling at a speed that is within safety parameters will help to alleviate some of the risks of collision. You should be taking every aspect of your location and ship condition into account when determining the safest speed of travel.
  • Take action the moment you see the other ship to avoid giving out wrong signals or creating an instance of close-call avoidance. The sooner you take the necessary effort to prevent the other boat, the safer everyone will be.
Who Has the Right of Way When Sailing?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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