Boating Etiquette 101

Boating Etiquette

When you are out at sea, remember that stopping to help another boat is more than a common courtesy; it is the law. The friendliness of the boaters and the willingness to help each other make boating so special! Keep the tradition alive on the waters and around the harbor.

Remember that there is no substitute for learning the rules, guidelines and laws of your lake, marina or other boat location. Boating is about having fun and being part of a special community. Read also our Glossary of Nautical Terms.

Boating Safety and Etiquette

Boat etiquette is not just about social norms, it is also about safety, so it is good to learn a few rules before loosening the ropes. The rules of the road are numerous and detailed, but if you only learn a few, you will be covered in most recreational boating situations. It is an accepted system of right of way , which one must follow in order to be polite and safety-oriented.

The following indicates which ship has the right of way and which one yields when another ship has to accommodate the other. In this situation, the two boats should get as close as possible before turning starboard and going from port to port. Either way, there is no guessing about the other captain’s intentions and a collision can be avoided. A sailboat that goes straight ahead has right of way in front of a motorboat. If the sailboat is running without motor, it should drive straight ahead.

Infographic: boat right of way

If two boats have the same priority for the right of way because of their classification, the position and direction of travel is decisive. To determine the position of another ship relative to your own, you need to know the different sectors of your ship (starboard, port, stern, etc.). Once you have identified another boat compared to yours, you know the right of way.

When two boats approach each other, you have to determine who has the right of way. Position, direction and different priorities for different ships make up the majority of the rules of the water. We have different types of ships, so priorities have little to do with them.

The Coast Guard gives the same priority to these two types of vessels. The basic rules for motor and non-motor boats have a pecking order, but when it comes to getting different ships under different conditions, this is determined by who stands between the ships.

The Highway Code stipulates that you must operate your ship during the journey in order to avoid collisions. Overtaking a slower ship in open water, so slow down if necessary to prevent other ships from faltering. Remember that you are responsible for your own wake. On the water, anchor at a pier or marina, cruise with friends and don’t cause stress to your boat neighbors by ignoring customs and traditions.

Boat Alert History Report · Boating Etiquette 101

If your wake causes other boaters distress, knocking items (or people) off a dock, you could be held liable for damages or injuries. Be mindful of wake zones at all times and remain in compliance.

When overtaking a boat, allow for as much room as depth conditions allow for. Consider your wake, and slow your speed if necessary to ensure you don’t rock the other vessel. If that vessel is a sailboat, overtake it by passing astern to avoid blocking its wind.

If you are the vessel being passed, slow your speed to a reasonable clip to allow the other boater to get around you safely.

Wave to other boaters

Regardless of the size of the boat, greet nearby vessels with a hand wave. Along with offering other boaters a friendly greeting, doing so sends a signal that you’re aware of their presence.

Anchoring Boats

When you enter an anchorage, reduce your speed to avoid generating a wake. The noise is carried by the water and you want to disturb your neighbors as little as possible. Avoid traveling near fishing boats or along shores when they do not seem to move. As a rule, the anchor is considered to be the first person in the anchorage and determines the swing radius.

When you drop anchor for a break in the evening, pay attention to your distance from other boaters.


Not all boaters are old salts, and if you see someone having difficulty mooring their boat or trailer, offer help.


Do not leave food or waste in the cockpit or in the dock as this will attract flies and dirty looks. Turn off all electronic devices when you leave your boat. Nobody wants to hear the nightly squeak of FM radio.

Never throw your cigarette butt in the water.

Make sure you bring everything you need to have fun in the sun. This includes sunscreen, sunglasses, chapstick, towels and all your food and beverages. Trust your friends when they say you need sunscreen and drinking water.

Guest Etiquette

If you have guests on board, make sure they are aware of the basics of boat etiquette. One of the biggest problems boaters have with etiquette is when guests don’t play by the rules. Boat etiquette is about respecting everyone and making sure everyone enjoys their time on the water. If you have special rules for your ship, make sure that everyone on the boat is aware of them. They should:

  • Ask permission before boarding.
  • Buy the fuel. If you’re an invited guest, offer to pay for the cost of the fuel.
  • Don’t show up empty-handed. Offer to bring along lunch for everyone.
  • Pack light, but smart. Bring the minimum amount of clothing for the climate—to conserve space on the boat—but be prepared. Sunscreen, sunglasses, sea sickness medication, a waterproof jacket, non-slip footer, and a warm sweater should be on your list.
  • Be Safe. ask about safety vests and don’t mess with the dials, buttons, gauges, or radios.
  • Don’t rock the boat. Wait until the boat has docked to gather your personal items and make your way off the boat. The sudden shift can distract the captain as he is trying to dock.

Navigation Speed

You should make every effort to know the requirements that are expected of all boaters, even if you encounter merchant ships, fishing or submersible boats and law enforcement personnel. In any case, you should operate at a safe speed, give in to ships when in doubt and avoid collisions, even if this means breaking the rules of navigation in order to save lives and property from damage.

Orderly and safe inland waterway transport has many facets. The navigation rules include steering rules (similar to road rules), sound signals, equipment requirements and there is even a section on navigation lights. Whole books and courses on this subject are offered online. Learn more and take part in a online Boat Safety Course.

VHF Radio Conduct

VHF channel 16 is for hailing and distress calls. Don’t use it for extended chats with other boaters. Once you’ve contacted another vessel ask them to switch to another frequency to continue the conversation. Making a false distress call is against the law. Keep kids off the radio because it’s not a toy.

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