Skip to main content
Original Issue


Motorists are lucky: the rules that govern them are, for the most part, clearly stated in signs along the roadside: NO RIGHT TURN, LEFT TURN FROM CENTER LANE ONLY. STOP! Although signs are few and no white lines exist on the constantly shifting surfaces of the routes boat drivers follow, the traffic laws (Rules of the Road in proper parlance) that govern them are no less explicit—only less well-known. As of now, they include a host of regional regulations, three sets of U.S. Coast Guard Pilot Rules, a federal "Motorboat Act," a Federal Boating Act and four separate sets of traffic rules.

Whenever an American yachtsman cruises outside of certain lines that lace the U.S. coast like a string stretched taut from one landmark to another, he is subject to the globally accepted international Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. On the inside of the imaginary string he may be subject to any one of three sets of U.S. boating regulations: 1) those applying to all inland waters except the Great Lakes, the Mississippi above the Huey Long Bridge, and a few other rivers; 2) those applying to the Great Lakes; and 3) those applying in the so-called Western Rivers (which, in fact, are midwestern rivers). Since boats and boatmen move from place to place across the land as often and as easily today as they once sailed the sea, the confusion implicit in four sets of rules so arbitrarily divided is obvious.

Next month the U.S. will follow most of the rest of the world in adopting a new, updated set of International Rules that reflect—somewhat belatedly—the passage of ocean shipping from the age of sail into the age of steam and diesel power. Most responsible authorities feel that this is the time to bring all U.S. boating regulations into some sort of unity. Meanwhile, since legislation is subject to delay, any small-boat owner would do well to familiarize himself with those parts of the rules that most affect him as they now stand. These are likely to fall into three classifications: the proper placement of lights so that other boats can get some notion of your heading in the dark, the correct action to take when collision threatens by day or night and the correct way to communicate intent to take that action by blasts of your horn or whistle.

Full competence in boating rules can be achieved only through earnest study, but there are a few basic traffic rules that everyone should be aware of. They are illustrated in the diagram at the left. While admittedly an oversimplification that applies only in an open-water situation free of special regulations, this diagram makes clear at a glance the rights and obligations of the powerboat in the center relative to the boats around him within a distance of half a mile.

There are many special provisions about running lights in the various sets of boating rules, but all of them provide that a power boat under 65 feet carry a green light on its starboard side, a red light on its port side and a white light astern. Each of these lights must be arranged to shed its glow over a specific sector of the horizon, described in compass points. The red and green lights cover 10 compass points apiece. The white stern light, either alone or in combination with another light (as in sailing auxiliaries under power) covers the whole circle of 32 points. Thus one boat approaching another under power in the dark will see either a red and white light, a green and white light, a white light alone or, from a point dead ahead, a red and a green light. From the combination the boatman will know which way the other boat is heading, and he can then set his course accordingly.

That course is based on the ancient principle that a vessel better able to maneuver (the "burdened" vessel) should keep clear of a vessel less able to maneuver (the "privileged" vessel), and the operative phrase is "keep clear." Thus, in most cases, a boat under power is required to keep clear of a boat under sail. A sailboat with a clear wind must keep clear of a sailboat whose wind may be blanketed (e.g., a boat to leeward). Where neither vessel has a clear advantage, sailors for centuries have given the privilege of "holding on" (keeping on course) to the vessel approaching from the right, or starboard, side. And, just as on land, when two vessels meet going in opposite directions, they must keep to the right and pass portside to portside—unless there has been a clear agreement between them (arranged by signaling) to keep to the left.

A boatman's sound-signaling devices should never be used, as auto horns often are, for mere blatant comment. A boat's whistle is a signaling device designed to convey a meaningful message. It is in the nature and use of these messages that the various sets of boating rules are most divergent.

In a general way, all the rules agree that one blast means a course directed to starboard, two blasts a course directed to port and a series of short, sharp blasts, disagreement or danger. But there the agreement ends. Under International Rules a pilot must not make any signal, except the danger signal, unless he accompanies it by a change of course. Under Inland Rules signaling expresses intent rather than action. Thus, when two boats meet in inland waters, one will sound a single blast, meaning, "I intend to keep to the right so we can pass port to port," whether or not a change of course may prove necessary. Once signaled, the other boat must either give assent with the same signal or blow a series of four or more short blasts, meaning, "I don't understand," or, "I think it would be dangerous." The one thing the second boat must never do is answer a one-blast proposal ("I intend to go to starboard") with a two-blast denial ("I intend to go to port") and thus create an unresolved seagoing argument.

So what do you do in case of disagreement? You stop and try to work it out. This is all part of the common sense that underlies all boating regulations. It is best expressed in the most important rule of all: paragraph (a) of Section 13 of the Federal Boating Act of 1958. This rule reads: "No person shall operate any motorboat or any vessel in a reckless or negligent manner so as to endanger the life, limb or property of any person."


Green area in diagram at left is the sector in which the 10-point green starboard running light and the 32-point white light of the powerboat in the center are visible. A boat approaching within this sector is privileged and should hold its course and speed while the powerboat keeps clear.

Red area is the sector in which the powerboat's 10-point red port running light and 32-point white light are visible. A powerboat approaching in this sector is burdened and must keep clear. A sailboat is privileged and should hold its course.

Blue area is the sector in which only the stern light is visible. Any boat, whether under power or sail, approaching from this sector is burdened and must keep clear when passing.

Running lights may be either the combination type with red and green lenses in one fixture (as shown from top, front and side in sketch at left) or separate type (as shown at bottom), depending on the size of the boat.

MEETING: Like automobiles, two boats meeting head on, i.e., within an angle of half a point on either side of the other boat's bow (as shown at top), must keep to the right and pass each other portside to portside, except where a clearly signaled agreement between them permits a starboard-to-starboard passing.

SIGNALS: Under Inland, Great Lakes and Western Rivers rules, whistle signals signify intent. One blast: "I intend to go to starboard." Two blasts: "I intend to go to port." Under International Rules signals signify action. One blast: "I am changing course to starboard." Two blasts: "I am changing course to port." International Rules forbid signaling without a corresponding change of course, or a change of course without signaling.

PASSING: Under Inland Rules a boat overtaking another (as at bottom) must signal her intent to go to starboard with one blast, to port with two. Overtaken boat must signal agreement with the same number of blasts.