Rules of the Road

Ask anyone, they'll tell you they are an excellent driver regardless of whether their thing is Harleys, cars, or boats. With a bit of experience most boat operators are in fact good at driving their vessel and able to dock, trailer, and tow skiers all with competent steering and throttle skill.

I'll bet even the dozens of operators involved in boating accidents and deaths each year would have told you the very same thing a day before their incident. Many of these involve excessive speed, inattention, and not following certain rules.

If you can answer the following three questions, then I applaud and commend you. What are the Inland Navigation Rules? Who do they affect? What is the proper signal for overtaking a slower vessel ahead of you?

Probably like the majority of weekend pleasure craft operators, you know bits and pieces of the Rules having acquired them over the years by talking with boating friends and through observation. The Rules are published by the US Coast Guard and apply to everyone operating a vessel of any size or type in navigable water ways. This isn't just for the big slow guys.

Very simply, they are operating criteria designed to prevent collisions. For example, Rule 6 requires operating at a safe speed for conditions present so as to stop or safely avoid other vessels. Let's face it, part of the attraction to small boats is the freedom and exhilaration of opening up the throttle and letting her fly.

Most modern wake boats, bass boats and day cruisers will move at or near freeway speeds. However, none are equipped with antilock brakes. Congested or narrow water ways require lower speeds than long, open straight-aways.

Rules 9 and 14 require vessels to stay to the right in narrow channels and pass port to port, much like driving a car where you stay on the right hand side of the road.

When approaching a slower vessel from behind and traveling the same direction, Rule 13 says the overtaking vessel has the obligation to stay well clear of the boat ahead. If there isn't room or sufficient visibility around the corner, throttle back and be patient for the necessary conditions to pass safely.

As to the proper signal question posed above, Rule 34 states the overtaking vessel is to sound specific horn blasts to communicate intent, with acknowledgment blasts by the vessel being passed. I rarely hear small boat operators comply with Rule 34 and expect that most operators would think the other guy is just being rude or impatient.

Knowledge and practice of the Nav Rules makes the water ways safer for everyone. It also means less likelihood of a driver's license requirement by individual states to reduce water related accidents. Spend a few minutes reviewing the rules so we can all boat safe and have fun.

Jonathan Bloom is a USCG licensed Master and ASA certified sailing instructor. He can be reached via

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