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The Rules of the Road – Steering & Sailing Rules

By Captain Bob Figular

Reprinted with permission from Mariner's Learning System

You must understand the steering and sailing rules and be able to apply them to various traffic situations. Although all rules of the road are important, the steering and sailing rules are the most essential to know to avoid collision. Knowing who is the stand-on or give-way vessel is essential to operating your boat safely. There are various rules that apply to specific situations. Here are some important examples….


All vessels are required to maintain a proper lookout at all times by using both sight and sound. In addition the lookout must use any additional means available such as using radar or VHF-Radio in the prevailing circumstances and conditions to fully assess the situation and determine if risk of collision is present. The lookout must consider all relevant factors including, but not limited to, the state of weather, conditions of visibility, traffic density, and proximity to navigational hazards.


Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed. This rule alerts you to the need to set a safe speed in all conditions of visibility. This obviously does not mean the same “safe speed” applies in good as well as restricted visibility. Under this rule you must use your best judgment to determine safe speed for your vessel to be able to take proper and effective action to prevent collision.

It is important to note that the present rule contains no requirements to stop a vessel’s engines, reduce speed to bare steerageway, or to go at a “moderate” speed. Safe speed may very well require these or other actions in good as well as restricted visibility. Under this rule you must use your best judgment to determine the safe speed for your vessel to be able to take proper and effective action to avoid collision.


As a boat operator you are required to use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances to determine if a risk of collision exists. If you have any doubt at all you are to operate your boat with the assumption that a risk of collision does exist.

Many vessels are not equipped with common navigational devices including a compass, radar, depth finder, etc. that are in good working order. You should recognize all of the possible dangers that could exist and be especially alert to any approach between vessels at a close range. The bearing of an approaching vessel should be determined and monitored by frequent visual observation.

risk of collision graphic


Any action you take to avoid a collision must be taken early enough to be effective and must be large enough to be readily apparent to the other vessel. Always remember that changes in a vessels course are usually easier to identify and are apparent earlier on radar than are changes in a vessels speed. Consequently, Rule 8 advises against making a series of small course or speed changes that may not be detected soon enough by other vessels. All actions taken to avoid collision should result in passing at a safe distance. Therefore, you must carefully check the effectiveness of your actions until the other vessel finally passes you and is clear.

avoid collision graphic


Any vessel overtaking another must keep clear of the overtaken vessel. An overtaking vessel is one that is approaching another vessel from any direction more than 22.5 degrees abaft its beam. When in doubt, assume you are overtaking and act accordingly.

This rule recognizes than an overtaking vessel should have less problems in keeping clear and avoiding collision than the vessel that is being overtaken. Even in the event that the overtaken vessel agrees by sound signal or radio transmission to allow the maneuver.

overtaking graphic


When two vessels meet head on, or nearly so each boat must change course to starboard and pass port-to-port. In inland waters, a whistle signal is sounded when the vessels are in sight and within 1⁄2 mile of each other. If the meeting vessels are already far enough off each other to pass clear on their present courses, no signal is sounded.

Such a situation shall be deemed to exist when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead by night she could see the masthead lights of the other inline or nearly inline and/or both sidelights and by day she observes the corresponding aspect of the vessel.

head on graphic


When two power-driven vessels are crossing and involve risk of collision the vessel having the other to starboard must keep out of the way and will avoid usually by turning to starboard and passing astern of the other vessel or, if circumstances permit, speeding up and crossing ahead of the other vessel.

crossing graphic


In practically all situations, a stand-on vessel must maintain course and speed. The give-way vessel in a crossing situation is required to alter course and/or speed to pass astern of the other.

Overtaking vessels, regardless of the method of propulsion, are always give-way vessels.

A vessel on the starboard side in a crossing situation is the stand-on vessel, and one on the port side is the give-way vessel unless it is a sailing vessel crossing a power-driven vessel. Vessels driven by machinery are always required to stand clear of sailing vessels unless being overtaken.

giveway graphic


This rule states that nothing in the rules shall exonerate any vessel owner, master or crew, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these rules or of neglect of any precaution, which may be required by any situation not covered by the rules.

In short this rule requires you to use your experience, judgment, and principles of “good seamanship” to supplement the rules or even to take action that may appear to conflict with the rules in a circumstance not covered by the rules if necessary to avoid collision. This rule recognizes that no body of rules can address every possible situation that arises on the water.

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Power Mechanical means of propulsion Sailboats using mechanical means of propulsion are considered power-driven
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