right of way rules


3 mins read

“Which boat has the right of way?”, the old boatman seems wonder. The question is interesting but the moment to ask it is maybe wrong.

This is why – even if the matter of right of way rules is particularly interesting in August when waters are crowded with yachtsmen – we want to deal with it now in order to refresh some notions and, maybe, a little some sense.

First of all, let’s see together how we can recognize a risk of collision against another boat. The rule is actually too simple for words: if the distance between the two boats under way decreases and bearing doesn’t change, this inevitably means that we’re on a collision course.


At this point, who has to maneuver in order to avoid collision? It depends.

Between a sailing boat and a motor one, the first always has the right of way. According to boating rules, sailing boats have right of way over any mechanically propelled boat. A sailing boat is obliged to give way to a motorboat only if the latter is experiencing some kind of difficulty restricting its maneuverability or has some draft constraints or is involved in fishing operations.

All this is true only if the sailing boat doesn’t sail under power.

Does that mean that a 7-metre boat have the right of way even over a 15,000-ton tanker? In theory yes but good sense should suggest us to change our course in this case.

A big ship, a ferry, a cargo ship will certainly have lower maneuverability than a recreational cabin-equipped boat; consequently, keeping the course would be silly and extremely dangerous.

Now, let’s see what happens when two sailing boats cross their courses. Anytime two sailboats are on opposite tack, the boat on starboard tack has the right of way; when, on the contrary, they are on the same tack, the boat most to leeward has right of way.

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And what about motorboats? In this case, too, it depends on situations.

When motorboats paths cross, the boat on the other’s right is stand on and the one on the other’s left is the give way boat. If, on the contrary, the courses are opposite, the two boats have just to turn starboard.

Finally, there’s the case where a boat reaches another one. In these cases, the first always gives way. According to rules, a boat is “reaching” if it sails within 135 degrees from the boat it is reaching.

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Please don’t forget that captains are always obliged to avoid collisions at sea. Constant lookout (in the cockpit or in the pilot house), strict respect for rules, caution and sense are the key elements to avoid them.


  1. It’s a bit surprising to see a boating magazine use the phrase “right of way” (outside the specialized confines of sail racing), and not quickly and thoroughly explain what is wrong with the phrase.

    • “Right of Way” is not a helpful phrase. Clearer terms are “stand on vessel” and “give way vessel”. This post/article also perpetuates the unfortunate and prideful misunderstanding that somehow sailboats “always have the right of way” even over commercial vessels restricted by draft, maneuverability, and/or work in which they may be engaged (fishing, dredging, etc.). I am a sailor. So I am sharing this with you as someone who shares your recreational passion (commercial Captains will not be so friendly): Get out of the way of larger, working vessels. It’s the law.

  2. I shared your post as I liked it and understood it well. But I’ve been told on the cruising and sailing Scotland site that it’s rubbish and lies and no boat has ever got right of way. I’m familiar with some of the RYA right of way racing rules and i agree that there is right of way rules. Just like the road kinda speak.. these guys are speaking about collision at sea regs. But I thought if everyone knew the right of way rules then there would be no collision at sea. I understand if u have right of way and you have an idiot who don’t no the rules yes you should avoid the collision..it common sense. Can you help me out here is ther right of way rules?

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