Who Gives Way While Boating?

A Guide to Navigating the Open Water with Ease


Boating etiquette has been in constant development for many years, consisting of both concrete and unwritten rules that should be followed regardless of where you are or what your experience level is with boating. 

It’s important to not get caught out on the open water while totally unaware of these rules for navigating waterways properly, which is why we’ve created a quick guide to safely maneuvering around your local waters with ease. Here’s what you need to know.  

boat leaving southport

The Rules of the “Road”

The number one rule of boating is to try to avoid potential accidents at all costs. That should always be your main goal. That means that if another boat has restricted maneuverability, it should be accommodated, even if under normal conditions it would be expected to give way to you and your boat.

1. Allow for Enough Passing Room

Always give as much room as possible to other boats when coming up behind them to pass. The depth conditions in the area you’re currently in will typically determine just how much of a wide berth you can give. Also observe your wake and any issues that might limit the space you have to pass safely. 

If the other boat is not currently in motion, be considerate and give them an even wider berth when passing, and greatly reduce your speed so as to not produce a massive wake.

If your boat is being overtaken, you may want to reduce your speed to allow the oncoming boat to pass without producing an even bigger wake. Still, remain on course and avoid colliding with other boats as they attempt to pass you.

2. Understand Who Has the Right of Way

In most situations, the stand-on vessel has the right of way, and the give-way vessel should accommodate for that. It’s also important to note that boats approaching from starboard (the right) typically have the right of way. 

A sailboat in motion will always have the right of way over a power boat. And human-powered boats (like a kayak or canoe) will always have the right of way over other boats, including sailboats. If a boat is currently stationary due to fishing activities that restrict its ability to maneuver, it has the right of way. 

When two boats are under sail, the one with the wind coming over the starboard side of the deck has the right of way over the one on the port tack. However, if both are on the same tack, the downwind boat will have the proper right of way. 

3. Slow Down and Avoid Making a Huge Wake

Slow down your boat to reduce your weight, especially because a slower boat will bear the brunt of the wake if it’s too strong. If you are going by a boat head-on, both vessels need to turn starboard (to the right) and pass port to port.

4. Understand Aids to Navigation

While not every body of water will have clearly marked signage about the rules of the road, there are Aids to Navigation (ATONs) which are used to determine position on the water or chart a safe course. These aids can include buoys, channel markers, day beacons, lighthouses, radio beacons, fog signals, and other devices used to clearly mark something to note in any given area. Be sure to learn what particular markers are being used in your area and what they all mean in general before heading out on the water. 

5. Observing Dock Etiquette

Boat etiquette does not just apply to the open waters — it starts the second you get to the marina or boat launch. If you’re launching or retrieving your boat from the water, it’s important to do so efficiently so you’re not hogging the access area. Once you’ve loaded the boat into the water, find a neutral location like a nearby dock or beach to meet your passengers and load guests and things there where you can take your time without impeding others from entering or exiting the water. 

If you’re refueling your boat at the fuel dock, gas up and pay your bill before relocating to a different area before heading inside to buy other groceries and goods. Never just leave your boat sitting unattended at the fuel dock, or else you could be delaying others from going about their days. 

6. Respect Others Always

No matter what, always respect those around you — both the people and the environment as a whole. Do not, under any circumstance, dispose of your trash overboard. Instead, be sure to keep all trash that’s accrued during your time on the boat carefully contained until you can properly dispose of it on land. 

A perfect day out enjoying the water can really be enhanced by the right music — or it can ruin the day. Sound is extra amplified over water, so keep that in mind while you’re bumping your tunes and be aware of those around you. 

If you approach a vessel whose intentions of where they’re headed are unclear, take precautionary action early on to avoid any last minute issues. You can sometimes use your horn to communicate with others, but regardless, slow down, and make any necessary course changes that are large enough to be properly communicated to the other vessel. Don’t always assume that other captains know what they’re doing!

Morningstar Marinas Pro Tip → Check out this Boating Safety Basics guide to freshen up on some of the most important safety precautions and preparations you can do to ensure you and your passengers have a good time and get home safely at the end of the day. 

Stay Safe All Season Long with Morningstar Marinas

At Morningstar Marinas, we pride ourselves on the community of boaters we’ve created across the Southeast’s top boating destinations. Our facilities and services paired with our friendly and knowledgeable team members will help you quickly and efficiently get out there on the water, so you can start having fun! Morningstar Marinas is more than just a place to store your boat — we’re here to offer you an unforgettable boating experience, everytime.