Safe Boating: Understanding Right of Way

Many outdoor enthusiasts associate boating with fun in the sun, and rightfully so, but it should never be forgotten that safety must always remain the utmost priority. Safety measures taken by responsible boaters include possession of up-to-date safety equipment required by the United States Coast Guard, refusal of drugs and alcohol, avoidance of shallow depths and much more. However, while these precautions eliminate various threats to the safety of one’s own vessel, understanding right of way often goes beyond what many deem to be basic boating knowledge, and failure to grasp these rules can result in catastrophe for you and others.

The following is not meant to scare or intimidate any novice boaters from enjoying the year-round boating opportunities we have here in the Sunshine State. In fact, we love seeing you out there on the water. However, for those who don’t completely understand right of way, it’s critical to brush up on these simple, yet important, rules of the road before untying those lines and pushing off.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the number of reportable statewide boating accidents in 2019 reached 723, a substantial increase from the 628 that occurred the year prior. While it’s unclear how many of these accidents involved more than one vessel, this disturbing trend illustrates that boater education needs to be a priority moving forward.

Crowded waterways worldwide can present potential danger to uneducated or careless boaters, but Florida’s widespread waters seem to be particularly dangerous when it comes to huge numbers of vessel operators showing blatant disregard for the rules. While just a little bit of research online can do wonders for new boaters trying to gain an understanding of the rules, we recommend that every boater out there takes a boater education course, at the very least. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) offers a variety of options for aspiring helmsmen. However, even if you don’t enroll in one of these short courses, you should still read and understand the various rules and regulations set forth by the USCG as they pertain to right of way and safe boating in general. We should also mention that the term “right of way” in boating is in many ways dissimilar to the same term in the context of driving on a road. On the water, there is always a “stand-on” vessel and a “give-way” vessel, with the stand-on vessel being the one to maintain course and speed, and the give-way vessel required to potentially alter course and/or speed.

Even though you might understand right of way on the water and follow these rules to the letter of the law, it’s important to understand that nearby boaters may demonstrate a disregard for these guidelines. Therefore, if there is ever a situation in which you know you have the right of way, but another boater clearly doesn’t intend on honoring that, it’s best to just pull the throttles back and let them do their thing in order to avoid conflict. However, if you come across a boater who is operating dangerously, don’t hesitate to report any incidents to local law enforcement.

With much of the statewide boating taking place amid interior bodies of water including bays, inlets and intracoastal areas, it’s important that boaters are aware of how to operate their vessels in close proximity to others. This is particularly true when approaching a bridge. Heavy boat traffic and swift currents can make navigating under bridges very daunting. However, understanding who has the right of way in these circumstances can prevent confusion and collisions with fellow boaters. As you approach a bridge, the first thing you should do is pull the throttles back to slow down. Next, assess the situation to see if there are any boats coming from the other direction. If so, you must identify which direction the current is flowing, because that will indicate who has the right of way in this situation. An operator whose vessel is going with the current has less control over the craft than one whose vessel is going against the current, giving the right of way to the vessel going with the current. However, given the nature of boater education and the fact that many boaters are not aware of this rule, never assume that the other vessel has yielded right of way. Always err on the side of caution.

Another situation that presents itself frequently is a boater crossing a channel. When this happens, the vessel crossing the channel should always give way to any vessels navigating the channel, particularly if that vessel in the channel cannot operate safely outside the channel. However, once again, exceptions to these rules are often warranted on the water, and sometimes boaters are forced to make judgment calls. Always take the course of action that you think is the safest for all parties involved.

When a vessel is approaching you from behind, either port or starboard, understand that you still have the right of way. In this scenario, you are the stand-on vessel and should maintain course and speed. Don’t think that because a boat behind you is coming in hot that you should have to slow down and allow them to pass. If you choose to do so, you must make your intentions clear, and ensure that slowing down or moving over won’t present any danger. However, if you have another vessel on your starboard side and its intention is to cross your path, then that vessel is the stand-on vessel and has the right of way.

In any scenario, make your intentions clear to other boaters as early as you can to give them ample ti me to react and adjust. It’s important that we know the rules of the road on the water before we take the helm of any vessel; but for safety’s sake, we can’t always assume that those around us have taken the same precautions.