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Traffic Laws of the Waterways

Collisions can be prevented easily if every vessel operator fulfills three major responsibilities.

Practice good seamanship. It is the responsibility of every boat operator to take all necessary action to avoid a collision, taking into account the weather, vessel traffic and the limits of other vessels. Such action should be taken in ample time to avoid a collision and at a safe distance from other vessels.

Keep a proper lookout. Failing to keep a sharp lookout is the most common cause of collisions. Every operator must keep a proper lookout, using both sight and hearing, at all times. Watch and listen for other vessels, radio communications, navigational hazards and others involved in water activities.

Maintain a safe speed. Safe speed is the speed that ensures you will have sufficient time to avoid a collision and can stop within an appropriate distance. Safe speed will vary depending on conditions such as wind, water conditions, navigational hazards, visibility, surrounding vessel traffic density and the maneuverability of your boat. Always reduce speed and navigate with extreme caution at night and when visibility is restricted.

Encountering Other Vessels

There are rules that every operator must follow when encountering other vessels. Two terms help explain these rules:

Give-way vessel. This vessel is required to take early and substantial action to keep well away from other vessels by stopping, slowing down or changing course. Avoid crossing in front of other vessels. Any change of course and/or speed should be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel. (A series of small changes should be avoided.)

Stand-on vessel. This vessel must maintain its course and speed unless it becomes apparent that the give-way vessel is not taking appropriate action. If you must take action, do not turn toward the give-way vessel or cross in front of it.

The action a vessel operator should take when encountering another vessel depends on the answers to two questions:

How are the two vessels propelled?

  • Two power-driven vessels
  • Two sailing vessels
  • A power-driven vessel and a sailing vessel

How are the two vessels approaching one another?

  • Meeting head-on: A vessel operator sees another vessel ahead or nearly ahead
  • Paths that cross: Two vessels are on crossing paths so as to involve risk of collision
  • Overtaking: A vessel is coming upon another vessel from behind or nearly behind the other vessel

The rules in these examples cover most of the situations you will encounter as a recreational boater. However, be aware that there are exceptions to the rules. For example, if you approach a vessel that has less maneuverability than your vessel, the other vessel will usually be the stand-on vessel.

Responsibilities Between Vessels

If operating a power-driven vessel, you must give way to:

  • Any vessel not under command, such as an anchored or disabled vessel
  • Any vessel restricted in its ability to maneuver, such as a vessel towing, laying cable or picking up navigation markers, or a vessel constrained by its draft, such as a large ship in a channel
  • A vessel engaged in commercial fishing
  • A sailing vessel, unless it is overtaking
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