Sailing Rules Of The Road: What To Do When Another Boat Approaches


Boats collide with each other more often than you may think. These crashes are mostly due to the sailors not being familiar with the rules of the road or not following them. All mariners, therefore, must acquaint themselves with the sailing rules of the road to avoid collisions at the sea.

These rules, as set forth by the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, cover all types of vessels from single-user kayaks and canoes to giant motorboats and ships. There are situations, however, where rules do not apply, say like when three or more watercraft converge.

Such instances will only require common sense. If you know the specific guides to use between two boats, then you will have a pretty good idea of what to do when more than two watercraft are passing or meeting. So here are the basic rules of the road that govern all vessels in US waters.

Stand-On And Give-Way Watercrafts

A give-way vessel should stay out of the way or rather ‘give way’ to the stand-on vessel. A stand-on vessel is so-called because it has to stand on its course and speed. Doing this grants the give-way craft a way to weigh the situation and assess it as it unfolds.

But what happens if the give-way craft fails to actually give way? In such an instance, the stand-on craft will have to change its course, speed, or both to stay out of danger.

In rules of the road sailing, the most maneuverable craft will be the give-way craft. That’s why a powered inflatable boat will be a give-way vessel to a sailboat, a moving kayak will give way to a vessel that is stopped, and both will be give-way vessels to a large sailboat in a narrow water channel.

When Sailboats Approach Each Other


To understand the rules here, you must get familiar with a few sailing terminologies:

  • Starboard tack: When the wind comes over the starboard’s side of the vessel
  • Port tack: When the wind comes over the port’s side of the vessel
  • Windward: Where the wind is coming from
  • Leeward: The side that is away or sheltered from the wind

If the sailboats are on different tacks, then the one on starboard tack will be the stand-on vessel. The sailboat on port tack will be the give-way vessel. When a sailboat gives way, it should turn to starboard. Turning a sailboat is much easier than speeding it up or slowing it down.

Should two sailboats meet on the same tack, however, the boat on the windward side must give way to the one on the leeward side. The preferred course of action would be for the boat on the windward side to turn quickly and go behind the boat on the leeward side.  The leeward sailboat will maintain its speed and course but must keep watch of the windward sailboat to ensure that it alters its course.

A good boating safety measure is for the give-way boat to make an early and significant change in course. An alteration of about 20˚ or more will be substantial enough to notify the stand-on boat that it can proceed on its way without danger.

When Powerboats Cross

Two powerboats crossing is similar to two vehicles coming to a four-way stop. The sailing rules of the road state that the vehicle (powerboat) on the right should be given the right of way. The give-way boat will turn to starboard and pass behind the stand-on boat.

In nighttime boating adventures, the stand-on boat will show a red sidelight to the give-way vessel indicating that it should take early and substantial action.  The give-way vessel will show green to indicate that it’s okay for the stand-on vessel to proceed on its speed and course.

Powerboat And Sailboat

On open water and in rough water boating, powerboats will give way to sailboats. In narrow water channels, larger ships will be granted the right of way.

When Vessels Overtake

The watercraft that is overtaking will give way to the one being passed. It doesn’t matter what type of boat it is but whoever is overtaking must keep clear. The only exception will be larger ships (over 20m in length) in narrow water channels. In such a situation, the vessel that is harder to maneuver will be stand-on.

Fog Signals

When boating in heavy rain, fog, smoke, or any other area with restricted visibility, vessels should produce sound signals. Rules of the road sailing state that all distress signals be repeated every two minutes. A short blast should last one second and a prolonged one should last five seconds.

More About Safety

Sailing rules emphasize caution and anticipation. If you are not sure what is happening, just stop and sound the distress signal. If you are in a small craft, even a simple whistle, flares, or flashlight (in dim light) will get the job done. In a larger vessel, make five or more short blasts of sound signals or use your VHF marine radio to contact the other vessel.

Other than paying attention to sailing rules, you will also need to observe coast guard boating safety. For instance, have the right equipment on board, bring life jackets for non-swimmers, and obey all boating drinking rules.

Also, depending on the size of your vessel, you will need to meet certain coast guard requirements.  There are specific coast guard requirements for boats under 16 feet and those above 16 feet, so know your vessel and what you need to stay on the right side of the law.

Globo Surf Overview

All boaters must follow sailing rules of the road to avoid crashing into each other. The most important thing to remember is that when two watercraft approach each other, one must act as a give-way vessel and the other as the stand-on vessel. Understanding sailing rules will help you determine when your boat should give way or stand on.

More Sail Reviews:


  1. Sailing – Rules Of the Road,
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My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!