Marine Rules of the Road

CAUTION: This is a subset of the Rules of the Road or  “ColRegs”.  Everyone is encouraged to read the ColRegs at least once in their boating career.

Rule number 1 is to always avoid a collision. If a collision occurs the Nav. Rules were not observed. The Coast Guard and Admiralty Court take the position that there are no accidents.

A watch (lookout) is required anytime that a vessel is under way.

The “Stand on Vessel” (the one that has the Right of Way) is required to hold course until such time that it is determined the “Give Way Vessel”  (the one that is yielding the right of way) is not going to Give Way. The Stand on Vessel is then required to avoid a collision. All maneuvers must be made early and obvious to avoid any chance of misinterpretation.

The “Give Way” vessel is the vessel that must yield (the term used on roads when you drive a car) to the other.  “Stand On” is the vessel that has the right of way.

No allowance is made by the Nav. Rules for novices. The rules assume that both the captain and crew know what they are doing and are competent at boat handling.

A Stand on Vessel MAY give up it’s rights. However any maneuvers must be made early and obvious BEFORE it becomes Stand on to show the vessel that would be the Give Way Vessel that it is not required to make an avoiding maneuver.

It is generally safer to duck or pass astern of the Stand on Vessel in close conditions.

Unless directed by the Coast Guard you are not required to stay clear of racing boats. However it is a common courtesy to avoid racing boats and racing courses. If you are on a sailboat remember your sail has a large wind shadow (7x or more of the mast height) that can interfere with other boats and affect the outcome of a race.

Five or more blasts of a horn indicate immediate danger. If five or more blasts are heard you should immediately determine the source of the danger and take immediate evasive action if required.

Summary (Subset)

  1. Power boats meeting head on: pass Port to Port (you move to Starboard – the same as on the street.
  2. Power boats crossing each others path: The vessel that is passing Right to Left (from Starboard to Port) is the Stand on Vessel and the other vessel shall keep clear.
  3. An Overtaken (ahead)(from more than 22.5 degrees abaft your beam) is the Stand on Vessel over the Overtaking vessel. This includes sail overtaking power.
  4. Two Sailboats meeting; Starboard tack is the Stand on Vessel over Port tack. If the tack of the other vessel can’t be determined is shall be treated as if it is on Starboard Tack. If both boats are on the same tack then the Leeward boat is the Stand on Vessel over the Windward boat. Because the Windward Leeward situation is often confused some Windward sailors will give way to a Leeward Vessel even when the Windward Vessel is the Stand on Vessel.
  5. A vessel restricted to narrow channels is the Stand on Vessel over vessels under 20 meters or fishing or sailing.
  6. A vessel that is in a traffic pattern (VTS) is Stand on over a vessel under 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel.
  7. The Nav. Rules for vessels are arranged in a Hierarchy with the highest being the Stand on Vessel.

Not Under Command
Restricted in ability to Maneuver
Constrained by Draft ( International Only )
Commercial Fishing (with nets or trawls  in water)

Give way to a vessel that is above you on list # 7.

Click here for a printer friendly version and quick self test (pdf)

Marine Sound Signals – PowerPoint presentation I have given covering Sound Signals.

VHF Marine Radio Tips – Quick Reference Guide to VHF Radio Usage.

Public Education – Page down to Revisions to Instructor Notes & Class Revisions – for the PowerPoint presentations and Instructor notes we use for Rules of the Road and Aids to Navigation in the basic Boating Safety Class.

Adapted from COMDTINST M16672.2B. Refer to COAST GUARD RULES for specific conditions and the full rule.

U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center Home:


Updated: August 18, 2015 – Removed Burdened references and clarified text for crossing and VTS etc.

FILE:RULES_01C.odt 11/23/08
© 2002 – 2015

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3 Responses to Marine Rules of the Road

  1. Pingback: Sailing Crew Class Resources–Fall 2011 | Boating Safety Tips, Tricks & Thoughts from Captnmike

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