Who has the Right of Way?


The Navigation Rules.  They are the rules of the road for the water.  It seems daunting at first, but it can be broken down into parts and easily digested over time.  We spent several weeks just on The Navigation Rules as part of a captain’s license course I took.

The Navigation Rules are divided into International and Inland waters.  The rules are more or less the same for both, but there are subtle differences.  Even though the Puget Sound is East of the inland waters demarcation line between Port Angeles, WA and Victoria BC, the Puget Sound follows the International Rules, or COLREGS.

With regards to who has the right of way, Rule 18 essentially establishes a hierarchy among vessels.


It’s a little convoluted the way it’s written, but it can easily be remembered with this saying (with the exceptions of Rules 9, 10, and 13 which will be described below):

“Only New Reels Catch Fish So Purchase Some Worms”

Or, written out below…

  • (Only) Overtaken – Vessels being overtaken always have the right of way.  Even if a sail boat is overtaking a power driven vessel, the power driven vessel has the right of way.
  • (New) Not under command – Vessels not under command (i.e. lost a rudder, etc…)
  • (Reels) Restricted in her ability to maneuver – For example, a vessel engaged in towing with a tow that severely restricts maneuverability.  This does not include all vessels engaged in towing – they need to display the appropriate lights and/or day shapes indicating she is restricted in her ability to maneuver.
  • (Catch) Constrained by draft – Again, must be displaying appropriate lights and/or day shapes indicating she is constrained by draft.
  • (Fish) Fishing – Must be engaged in fishing.
  • (So) Sailing – Must not be using motor, otherwise considered a power driven vessel.  Right of way between two sailing vessels is basically, starboard tack has right of way, if two boats are on a starboard tack, then the leeward boat has the right of way.
  • (Purchase) Power driven vessel – Motor running means power driven vessel, with the exception of the above.  When two power driven vessels are in a crossing situation, the vessel to starboard has the right of way (just like the rules at a four way stop sign).
  • (Some) Seaplane – Seaplanes need to stay out of the way of everybody.
  • (Worms) Wing in Ground (WIG) craft – An odd craft that you’ll probably never see in a lifetime.

But, there are exceptions to the above, specifically Rules 9, 10, and 13.

Rule 9 is with regards to narrow channels


Rule 10 is with regards to traffic separation schemes


And Rule 13 is with regards to overtaking


A few examples…

#1) The container ship in the photo below is utilizing the traffic separation scheme (traffic lanes).  I’m sailing on my sailing boat.  According to Rule 10, I need to stay out of the container ship’s way.  If, however, the container ship was outside of the traffic lanes, and I was sailing, the container ship would be considered a power driven vessel per Rule 18 and I would have the right of way.


#2) A vessel engaged in towing operations is not utilizing the traffic separation scheme, and it is not showing any lights or day shapes indicating that it is constrained in her ability to maneuver.  The vessel engaged in towing is considered a power driven vessel.  I am on my sail boat sailing.  I have the right of way per Rule 18.

#3) I was sailing out of Eagle Harbor a few weeks ago.  I was sailing well away from any ferry traffic lines on the charts.  The ferry comes out of Eagle Harbor, uses the secondary channel of the preferred channel mark, and is bearing down on me at a high rate of speed.  I was a sailing vessel, the ferry was not in a narrow channel (Rule 9), not in a traffic separation scheme (Rule 10), and was overtaking me (Rule 13).  Per Rule 18, the ferry would be considered a power driven vessel overtaking me, and I would have the right of way since I was sailing and being overtaken.  Did the ferry show any signs of giving way?  No!  I suppose I could have hailed the ferry on the radio reminding him of Rule 18, but this is where you need to use common sense.  The unwritten rule of might makes right, the rule of tonnage, etc…  I’m just an annoying piece of floating plastic to a lot of these big boat operators.  I quickly fired up my motor and got the hell out of his way.

-over and out-


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s