Playing by the Rules?

It’s time to brush up on your navigation knowledge

Playing by the Rules?
Rules of the Road Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Maybe you’re fixing to sign up for a U.S. Power Squadrons safe-boating course, or perhaps you took one long ago. You can’t help wondering: Is your seamanship knowledge shipshape? Test it against these scenarios:


Q1) You’ve left the dock well before dawn on an offshore trip to fish the canyons. It’s still dark, but your radar is working properly. How fast can you go?

Q2) To get to your favorite bay, you must run a lengthy, well-marked channel. As you do, another boat approaches, rapidly, from the opposite direction. How do you proceed?

Q3) Sharking at night, anchored, you see a larger vessel making way, approaching well off your port side. You clearly see a red all-around light on top, a lower white light in a vertical line, another white light on one side, sidelights and a stern light. What kind of boat is it?

Q4) While kingfishing in the Gulf of Mexico near several oil rigs, you spot a commercial boat, barely moving. Does it have what the rules consider “restricted maneuverability” (and thus require you to give way)?

Q5) During a sailfish tournament, you are trolling off Miami’s Government Cut shipping canal when a commercial freighter comes into view, heading toward your boat on an apparent collision course. Who gives way?

Q6) One of the engines on your twin-outboard center-console has overheated, and now you’re idling back to the marina. As you transit the narrow channel of a coastal river, a commercial vessel comes up behind you and sounds two prolonged blasts of its horn, followed by two short blasts. What is it telling you?

Q7) Running to your favorite redfish hole involves crossing a congested bay lined by several marinas. An unmanned freighter is at anchor, and a sailboat is underway. What are your responsibilities?


A1) According to Rule 6 (Safe Speed), a vessel must be operated at a safe speed (slow enough) to avoid collision, with the operator taking into account visibility, traffic density, stopping distance, background lights, sea conditions, navigational hazards, and the boat’s draft. In other words, you can go as fast as it’s safe to go — and no faster!

A2) According to Rule 14 (Head-On Situation), two power-driven boats meeting on reciprocal courses, with a risk of collision, shall each alter course to starboard to pass on the port side of the other. But nothing absolves you of the duty to avoid a collision, rules or no rules.

A3) The vessel is a fishing boat, engaged in a form of fishing other than trawling. (Its outlying gear in the direction of the white side light.) As described in Rule 26 (Fishing Vessels), a boat that is trawling (dragging a dredge net) would instead show a green light on top, with a white light in a vertical light below, plus side lights and a stern light. Vessels less than 50 meters long may also illuminate an optional masthead light abaft of and higher than the green light; vessels longer than 50 yards must show that masthead light abaft.

A4) Probably. According to Rule 3 (General Definitions), any of the following would qualify a vessel as restricted in maneuverability: engaged in laying, servicing or picking up a pipeline; engaged in dredging, surveying or underwater operations; engaged in replenishment or transferring people, provisions or cargo. Other restricted classifications apply if a vessel is launching or recovering aircraft, clearing mines, or towing and unable to deviate from its course. Such a vessel cannot maneuver to keep out of another boat’s way; you must adjust to it.

A5) The boat on port, unless … according to Rule 15 (Crossing Situation), when two power vessels are crossing with a possible risk of collision, the vessel that has the other on its starboard side should keep out of the way, and avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel. A vessel like yours, fishing with trolling lines, by the way, is not considered engaged in fishing under Rule 3, since it still has unrestricted maneuverability; if that’s you, on the port side, give way.

A6) The two long, two short blasts signal an intention to overtake you on your port side. Rule 34 (Maneuvering and Warning Signals) describes the proper use of sound and light signals. Two prolonged blasts followed by one short blast, by the way, indicates an intention to overtake on the starboard side.

A7) You are required to avoid both the anchored freighter and, unless it is under power, the sailboat. Under Rule 18 (Responsibilities Between Vessels) and except when rules 9, 10 and 13 require otherwise, power vessels underway must keep out of the way of vessels not under command, restricted in their ability to maneuver, engaged in fishing, or are sailboats under sail power only.

Learn more about rules of the road and boating safety, check out the list of courses maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard at; U.S. Power Squadron ( courses are among those listed.

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit