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When I was taking my Yachtmaster prep classes back in Grenada, our instructor Alex was quizzing a couple of the other participants about the nautical “rules of the road.” These gentleman, who actually worked on ships for a living, told him that when on a potential collision course with another boat, they simply “get out of the way.” While that sounds OK in theory, the practical matter is that there is a proper way to avoid collision and a less-than-proper way. While it’s important for the give-way vessel to take evasive action (and the stand-on vessel to stand on!), it’s just as important for the other ship’s helmsman to know what you’re going to do.

Take for instance the situation when two power-driven boats are coming at one another. In busy waters like the Virgin Islands, this happens all the time! Have you been walking down the sidewalk with someone coming the other way and when you tried to avoid him/her, the other person moved to the same side of the walkway that you did? Then when you switched to the other side, they simultaneously switched as well? And so on. Isn’t that frustrating? Now imagine doing that uncomfortable dance in a large, difficult-to-stop boat traveling at 6 or more knots! Not cool.

Turn to starboard, not port!

If there is even a hint of hitting the other ship (if you considered the question “will we hit or not” then it’ll be too close!), the correct response is to make an early and obvious course adjustment to starboard. If both vessels do this then they will pass port to port. Note also by turning to starboard, you present your port side to the other ship making you the stand-on vessel. This would not be the case if you had turned to port.


If the vessels opt not to do this, or if circumstances don’t allow it, you’ll often hear them contact one another on the radio to confirm their intention of passing starboard to starboard. Many ships will also confirm their intentions via the VHF even if they do intend to pass port to port. Although I’ve never actually seen this done in real life, they could also let the other vessel know which side they intend to pass on by sound signals: one blast of the ship’s horn equals port to port, two blasts equals starboard to starboard.

In other news, happy birthday Mr. Marley. Your music lives on around the world!



  1. Hey Guys,

    Thanks for the One Love Video. We were fortunate enough to be present at Foxy’s Old Years Night and watch Bunny Wailer. He was amazing. The energy his performance created was incredible. We can only imagine what it must have been like to see Bunny, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley together. As we looked around the crowd the diversity in the ages of the people in attendance , and how everyone new the words to the songs led us to comment on how their music had transcended the ages. As the video represents, their music reaches nations.

  2. I wish the folks around here knew the rules. they also motor at high speed up the port side of the channel… possibly because here in Australia we drive cars on the left. I often wonder how many have their boat licence at all!

    It certainly is nice when everyone understands the rules

    • Interesting that you note the part about driving on the other side of the road. I was going to comment on that too. We definitely find that when walking down the sidewalk here everyone passes to the opposite side that we’re used to. I have also had a number of boats pass starboard-starboard and wondered if that was the reason why.

  3. Nice video, thanks. I have just wikipedia’d Bob Marley and found out who he was, sounds an interesting person.

    Right on.
    Be right.
    Keep right.
    Might is right
    Right is right.

    But above all, get out of the way.
    The other boat may be constrained by their draft, restricted in their ability to manoeuvre, on auto-pilot and so on. Get out of the way.
    I am ok in 1m of water, they are not.
    I can safely go aground, they can not.
    Worries about ‘stand-on vessel’ etc only apply when out in deep water and plenty of space.

    Sound signals are common where I am. Narrow channels, big ships and lots of small boats. Sound signals WORK! Deafeningly! 🙂


    • You’re right to a degree but the proper response, unless circumstances do not allow it (I said that in the post), is to turn to starboard. To promote the idea that you should just get out of the way by any method is false and dangerous.

  4. I’ve had that same question. In the US or North America, we’re all move to the right when passing people. We drive on the right and yes, when walking we do the same. I had pondered that in left side driving nations, do people, when walking, walk on the left side?
    And according to your Aussie reader, it appears that way, which means… The whole human race must decide port to port or right to right, we must all get along… good luck with that. LOL

  5. very easy to understand but when you discuss rules of the road you should point out all your options to the readers of course altering your course to starboard is your first option of collision avoidance but should be done quickly and with a significant degree of change as to be apparent by the other vessels not in small increments. A change in speed is also an option slowing to bare steerage until risk of collision has passed. This one you wont find in the rules of the road but I have used is making a complete round turn letting the other vessel pass. I am a retired USCG ships master any tonnage any ocean I sailed with Maersk lines for 20 years. In most close quarter situations like fairways and traffic separation schemes the larger vessels and small commercial vessels like tugs and tows will generally have the right of way by virtue of being burdened. My best advice if you cannot communicate with a vessel use prudent seamanship just because you are the stand on vessel does not mean that you cannot be held responsible for a collision at sea and always know what you best options are sometimes slowing down and not turning will be just enough to take care of a bad situation. situational awareness is the key to safe navigation

  6. The golden rule is don’t alter corse to port to avoid collision. Altering to port will put you in the wrong position, even if you were being responsible. There is also the concept of, if impact is going to happen, then do not alter corse excessively as to present your beam to the other vessel. A t-bone collision is far more damaging than glancing bow to bow.
    There are times in a channel were port to port is not appropriate eg: vessel with limited steerage, or restricted to certain part of channel by draft. However these will be slow moving vessels.
    I think The comment by Russ about most people not having license is correct.

    • “There are times in a channel were port to port is not appropriate eg: vessel with limited steerage, or restricted to certain part of channel by draft.”

      Which is why I wrote… or if circumstances don’t allow it,…

  7. Here’s another situation that causes some confusion, even to ferry captains (in my experience). Check me on this and let me know if I was wrong in the following situation.

    Right-of-way in open water for motor vessels states that the vessel approaching from the starboard (A) is granted right-of-way unless that vessel (A) is approaching from the rear quarter of the other vessel (B). If the vessel approaching from starboard (A) is approaching from the rear quarter (135 or more degrees to starboard), then that vessel (A) is overtaking the other vessel (B) and must grant right-of-way to the other vessel (B).

    This is true *except*: When the other vessel (B) is entering or crossing a marked channel in which the approaching vessel (A) is navigating. In this case, the motor vessel crossing the channel (B) must grant the right-of-way to all motor vessels navigating in the channel.

    In this case, both vessels are motor vessels, neither is operating under sail, none are towing, conducting fishing activities, not under command, or constrained by draft.

    A while back, at 28°03’13.7″N 82°48’46.4″W, a local popular 12-meter passenger ferry exited its dock, and due to the high tides at that time of the day, proceeded to cross the main channel on-plane (about 18 kts), travelling N-NE and navigate across a seagrass bed that is too shallow at lower tides. The ferry captain navigated across the channel and to the starboard of the red channel marker on a more-direct route to his other terminal. I was approaching in my skiff a 20 kts, within the channel, travelling E, 110 degrees to his starboard, based on his angle of approaching the channel. He began a turn to port just prior to entering the channel, placing me 135 degrees to his starboard instead of broadside.

    Through the entire lead-up of this situation, he was 45 degrees to my port.I initially assumed that he would turn and proceed down the channel to the point where he would normally turn and follow a side channel to his other terminal. I was hoping that he would see me and give me room in the channel to continue operation. I was surprised when he not only entered the channel, but did not alter course and proceeded to cross the marked channel immediately in-front of me . He only looked and saw me when I reduced power and took evasive action to avoid an imminent collision.

    He had a shocked expression on his face from 10m away (way too close for comfort when closing at an estimated 10 kts speed). I was irritated at what I believe was his failure to observe the rules of navigation.

    Let me know if I was wrong on this. I think it through every once in a while and still come up with the same answer.

    Dave W.

    • Sounds to me as if he was in error. Although some might argue that as the smaller vessel, you should have given way, I think the correct and courteous action of the ferry driver would have been to steer behind you.

      On a small technical note in case there are others reading this trying to learn, I “think” the exact angle delineating being an overtaking vessel or not is 22.5 degrees abaft of the beam (112.5 degrees, not 135 degrees as you noted).

      Of course, as you found, there is no real “right of way” on the water. Everyone must obviously alter course (at the last minute) if it is required to avoid collision.

  8. Unless of course there are local rules at play.

    Priority over Sail.
    Some commercial ferries on Sydney Harbour display an orange diamond shape which grants priority (right of way) over sailing vessels. This is an exception to the ‘power gives way to sail’ rule.

    High Speed Ferries (on Sydney Harbour)
    These craft carry the normal lights for a power driven vessel underway and, in addition, they exhibit an all-round flashing yellow light when they are travelling at speed.

    • Makes sense. Even if there weren’t special rules at play, I wouldn’t want to cut in front of one of those fast moving ferries! At least not in St. Thomas!

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