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Basic things you should know about boating rules and regulations

Last Updated: 07.05.19


Those who plan on spending their time literally floating, boats are an excellent idea, but they need to know there are rules for them, too, just like for cars on the road. It’s unlikely to wave your sword at the seamen and set sail to the Caribbeans without following the federal rules and regulations as well as those that are effective in the waters of the state you are in.

The number of rules is impressive since people had to refer to a large array of issues. On some matters, you’ll probably need to look into more closely, but the main concerns are addressed in the lines below.



If you’re about to buy a boat, it requires registration. The vessels that are equipped with a motor have to be registered. If you’re the owner of a kayak, canoe or racing shell that’s less than 16 feet, registration is not always necessary. Depending on the state laws, you get between ten and thirty days time for registering and getting a number for your boat.

The number you receive has to be on display on both sides of the boat, above the waterline.



Not all boats are created equal, so your vessel belongs to a specific type and is part of a length class. By measuring a vessel from the tip to the stern, you can easily find out the equipment required by federal and state laws.

Length classes are as follows: less than 16 feet, 16 to less than 26 feet, 26 to less than 40 feet, 40 to less than 65 feet. You can leave out the outboard motors, swim platforms, ladders and other attachments when you do the measuring.

Vessels, except personal watercrafts, are provided with a capacity plate. That’s where the weight capacity is inscribed, including the number of persons you can transport. In order to keep the vessel afloat and enjoy safe navigation one should follow the indications on the plate.


General conduct

In principle, no vessel has the right-of-way over other vessels, but when you’re steering a boat you should operate responsibly so that you can avoid a collision. For those who are not familiar with nautical terms, here’s what you should know so you can understand the rules.

If you’re the stand-on vessel, then you should maintain the course and speed at which you are sailing, while the give-way vessel is the one that must take action in order to avoid the collision. She has to change her course, slow down or stop.

Under conditions of good visibility, you can stay out of trouble by being on the lookout and maintaining safe speed and distance. However, you may encounter other vessels that have limited maneuverability for one reason or the other. Here’s what you have to do in various circumstances.

In case you’re piloting a motor vessel, you must give way to watercrafts that are not under command, such as disabled or anchored vessels. Also, give way to a ship that is towing another, one that is laying cable or is constrained by her draft. Other ships you should give way to are the commercial fishing ships and sailboats.

In case you’re helming a vessel under sail, you must give way to fishing boats, vessels that are not under command and those that have limited maneuverability.


When two vessels meet

There are no pedestrians at sea that you have to worry about, however, you’ll meet plenty of vessels and you have to know exactly what to do in every situation.

There are several situations that rules and regulations take into account. One of them is meeting a vessel head-on. In this instance, both vessels must alter their course to starboard and you’ll be passing each other port-side to port-side.

Or you could be in a crossing situation when the courses are intersecting each other. In this case, the vessel on the starboard is the one that should be given priority.

Another very common maneuver is overtaking. It basically means you are about to approach a vessel from the stern, at a 22.5-degree angle. You can only see the stern light from that angle. One thing you should remember is that the overtaking vessel must stay out of the way of the one that is overtaken.



Whenever you’re in a narrow channel or fairway you should stay near the outer limit of the channel. You should stay on the starboard side, like in most other situations.

Power vessels with less than 65 feet in length or sailing vessels must stay out of the way of bigger ships. You must always grant them passage so they can navigate safely. If you consider that crossing the channel could obstruct the safe passage of such a ship, it is better not to do it.

Another restriction refers to anchoring in a narrow channel. Unless it’s really unavoidable, you shouldn’t do it.

Narrow channels can be dangerous because other vessels can be obscured, giving you less time to react. Sound signals are important in such cases, so you should always stay alert.


Power and sail

When two vessels meet, the difference between power-driven vessels and sail vessels is important. They have different maneuverability and speed and are operated differently, so there are rules for each type of encounter.

When power meets power, there is no stand-on vessel. Each of the two become give-way vessels and have to turn to starboard.

Powerships are also give-way vessels when they meet with a sailing vessel. The only exception is when the sailing ship is overtaking.

The way sail vessels interact depends on how the wind blows. The vessel with the wind on starboard has the right of way.

For all of the above, there are more precise indications that can keep you away from trouble and fines. You can find them almost anywhere since international nautical laws and federal regulations are part of the public domain.

Safety regulations

Those with a PWC must wear a Type I, II, or III PFD at all times. Also, persons under 12 years of age have to wear flotation devices in vessels that are less than 26 feet in length. You’re also supposed to have a fire extinguisher, ventilation system, a horn, whistle or bell and navigation lights. For most people who want to buy a boat, a boating course that offers certificate is required.


Personal watercrafts

In most states, the right to operate a personal watercraft is given to persons that are over 12 years of age, but others only allow it for children over 14 or even 16 years of age. What’s more important, a boating education course is usually necessary.

Most other rules and regulations are also available if you’re piloting a PWC, so this guide is just as good for PWC owners.



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