Rules of Road at Sea

Having spent thousands of hours on the water and traveling hundreds and thousands of miles around the world, I have come across a few situations on the water. Unfortunately, some of the worse I have encountered were in New Zealand. In my opinion, these were due to our poor knowledge of basic rules of the road at the sea.

I have recently been testing my theory by asking people whom I go fishing with. “Who gives way when there is another boat approaching?” The results have been very poor. Some of the people I asked have been on the water for years and I have always considered them salty sea dogs and men of the sea.

So if you don’t know these basic and simple rules, please — for everyone’s sake — read ahead and make sure you understand these basic and vital rules of the road on the ocean.

Unfortunately in our country, you are not made to learn the rules before you go boating. However, it is your responsibility to know them. If something goes wrong and you’re investigated, you will be nailed if you don’t know them. This article is also all about collision avoidance and what to do if you’re on a collision course with another boat in conditions with good visibility. Let’s start with the basics.


You must keep a good lookout at all times to avoid collisions. Look for other boats, kayaks, swimmers, obstacles, and any other hazards you might encounter. Keep your eyes on the road at all times. It is your responsibility to do so.


You must travel at a safe speed at all times, especially around boat traffic, in poor weather and when visibility is poor. If in doubt, slow down.

You must be older than 15 years old to operate a power boat at speeds greater than 10 knots.

You must not exceed 5 knots if you are:

  • Within 200M of the shore
  • Within 200M from a boat displaying a diver’s flag
  • Within 50M from any other boat
  • On a power boat, if any person has any part of his body outside the rails or edge of the deck.

I do see boaties going along with their kids sitting on the bow with their legs hanging over the side; this is very dangerous and illegal, do not do it.

Port and Starboard

The port is the left side of the boat looking forward and the starboard is on the right side of the boat looking forward. You need to think of port and starboard in colors also. Port is red and Starboard is green. A good way to remember this is to use the saying…

“There is no more port left in the bottle.”

This relates to the port on the left and is red like a bottle of port. So there is a red side and a green side to the boat; try and remember this as it is key to knowing what to do.

Let’s look at what to do in a few basic situations:

When 2 boats meet

When two boats meet, there is always a boat that should give way (give way boat) and a boat which has the right of way (stand on boat).

Head on

When you are in a head on situation, each vessel must turn to starboard (right). When you do this, exaggerate your turn to starboard and show them the port side of your boat. This over exaggeration of your turn to starboard will let the other vessel know you have seen them.

Remember to show them the port side of your boat which is red; red means stop. Show them the red side as if to say, “Please turn to starboard.”


When you are overtaking, you must give way. You are overtaking if you are approaching another boat anywhere in a 135 degree sector at its stern.

When power meets power

You must give way to another boat on your starboard side. A good way to remember is, if you can see the port side (red side) of the boat, think of it as a red stop light and you must give way.

When power meets sail, rowing, or paddling

You must give way to all of the above when you’re in a power boat.

Being the boat with right of way (stand on boat)

This is where I see the most mistakes on the water. If you are the stand on boat, you need to hold your course and speed, and let the other vessel give way to you. If you do not know the basic rules and you start turning when you shouldn’t, it creates confusion especially with the approaching vessel on who should give way.

Hold your speed and course, until it appears that the other vessel is not going to give way. In this situation, you should take action to avoid a collision which means a turn to starboard; do not turn to port.

In channels and harbors

You are not allowed to anchor in a channel to fish.

Keep to the starboard (right side) of the channel.

Inside a harbor, you must stay away from ships over 500 tons, which is around 50M. Boats with this size take longer to stop and turn, so leave at least 500M to clear when you’re ahead of the ship.

Stay 200M away from tankers.

Small craft must keep out of the way of larger vessels that are restricted by the size of the channel.


Here, I have gone over the most basic of rules to help you avoid any collisions at sea. Once you learn these rules and start to use them, you will feel more confident and will be more relaxed on the water.

Our water ways are becoming busy; it’s really important to know these rules and I can’t stress it enough. I have seen many close calls on the water in New Zealand. Please don’t end up hurting yourself, your family, or anyone else on the water.

Remember, it is your responsibility to know the rules. If you do have an incident on the water and don’t know these basics, you will be in trouble.

Learn your rules of the road today.

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