BASIC SAILING: Rules of Sailing



Just as there are rules and regulations for automobiles, there are marine traffic laws that boats have to follow. These are referred to as the "rules of the road", or right-of-way (ROW) rules.

  • The US Coast Guard maintains these regulations for four geographic areas: International, Inland, Great Lakes, and Western Rivers. These rules have been developed for every situation where vessels meet or cross, to avoid the possibility of a collision. There are also local regulations such as speed limits that a sailor should also be familiar with and obey.


  • For more information on the US Coast Guard Navigation Rules for International and Inland water, you can download a complete copy using Adobe Acrobat. See the US Coast Guard Publications, Reports, Studies and Forms. Under Technical Publications, select Navigation Rules. (You must have a copy of Adobe Acrobat on your computer.) Here you will find the latest Navigational Rules as of October 1995. (See page 27 for information on two sailboats approaching one another.)


  • There are separate rules for sailboats and powerboats. If your sailboat is being propelled by a motor, you are no longer considered a sailboat, and must obey the powerboat rules.


  • Some people mistakenly think that a sailboat always has the right-of-way over powerboats. A sailboat does have the ROW over a powerboat unless the sailboat is overtaking the powerboat. A sailboat must also keep out of the way of large vessels in narrow channels, and ferryboats. This is just common sense since these large vessels have difficulty stopping and maneuvering.


  • There are a few basic right-of-way (ROW) rules that every sailor should be familiar with. These four rules deal with two sailboats in sight of one another and what to do to avoid a collision. It is good sailing etiquette to yield the ROW to others.


  • The four rules listed below give a basic overview of who has the right-of-way. If all else fails, when two boats are at risk of colliding, the boat that has the other on its starboard must keep out of the way.
Right-of-Way (ROW) Rules
Rule 1 Rule 2 Rule 3 Rule 4


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Created by Elizabeth Fox, an MLS student at
Rutgers University School of Communication, Information and Library Studies (SCILS)
Please send comments to elfox @scils.rutgers.edu
Last modified: December 16, 1997