First Rule of the Road: Avoid Collisions with Other Boats

Don't assume other boaters know the navigation rules.

Boat Safely Means Knowing the Rules of the Road

Keeping a Distance on the Water

Knowing the Rules of the Road is important, but never assume other boaters will know or comply with them. Be ever vigilant, as avoiding a collision is the over-riding rule.Jim Hendricks

If you're a boater who's unfamiliar with the Rules of the Road, learn them. The best place is in a Boating Safety Course offered under the auspices of the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety. For available courses – both in-classroom and online – visit the Coast Guard website.

I took such a class years ago and learned about the Rules of Road (now also called Navigation Rules, which seems more nautically appropriate). Without going into detailed descriptions, these rules establish a consistent way to navigate safely and avoid collisions when two boats are crossing paths, are on course to meet head-on, or when one boat wishes to overtake another. They are particularly helpful on crowded waterways, but can also prove useful on open water.

To give you an idea of the way one rule works, consider this scenario: You’re a few miles from the inlet on the way in from a fishing trip. Another boat is on its way out, closing quickly on a course that would meet you head on. Time to change course. According to the Rules of the Road, both vessels should immediately alter course to starboard to avoid a collision. So you dutifully comply. Yet, the other vessel turns to his port – toward you. Yikes! What now?

Therein lies the problem with the Rules of the Road. They only work if all boaters follow them. That's a dangerous assumption. Some boaters might not know the rules, or perhaps they view them more like guidelines than actual rules, to paraphrase Capt. Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean.

That’s doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the rules. Please do so. Yet also exercise good judgment, and never put your boat and crew in jeopardy for the sake of following rules. In the example above – a very real-life scenario that occurs often – you should need to take evasive action immediately to get away from the other vessel, rules or no rules. Above all else, avoid a collision. That’s the No. 1 Rule of the Road.