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Knowledge of the Rules of the Road is critical to the safe operation of vessels especially in tight quarters.  These rules are best understood in terms of one boat having the right of way and the other having the responsibility to give way. The terms often used are those of the “Stand-On Vessel” and the “Give-Way Vessel” respectively. 

The Stand-On vessel has the responsibility to maintain course and speed such that the Give-Way vessel can determine the best action to stay clear.  The Give-Way vessel has the responsibility to take EARLY and SUBSTANTIAL action to avoid the Stand-On vessel. Appropriate actions to give way include stopping, slowing down or altering course to go behind the vessel with the right of way.

Sail boaters have the added responsibility to know multiple sets of these rules in that, when they are powered solely by the wind, the vessels are sailboats. However, the moment any type of engine is employed, they become a powerboat irrespective of whether the sailboat’s sails are up or down.  For the Rules of the Road as they apply to powerboats, click here

Three basic scenarios come into play with respect to powerboats and Rules of the Road.  They are:

Sailboat encounters another sailboat

Sailboat encounters a powerboat

Sailboat encounters a canoe, kayak, paddleboat or rowboat

Importance of Navigation Lights

At night or during periods of reduced visibility, it is crucial that your navigation lights be illuminated both to demonstrate your boat type and your direction of travel.

Over-riding Rules of the Road

  • Any boat under 20m (65’7”) in overall length is required to give way to larger vessels that can only safely navigate within defined traffic lanes. (Eg. Lake Freighters, Ferries, etc.).
  • Vessels towing objects or other boats, by default, have the right of way and should be given a wide berth as the tow lines may be submerged.

Despite the rules discussed in this section, the Collision Regulations state that, regardless of which vessel has the legal right of way, each operator must do everything in their power to avoid the risk of collision.

Rules of the Road (Under 6 Metres)

Overtaking Another Boat

It’s legal to overtake another boat by passing either to port or to starboard.  The Collision Regulations state that a vessel intending to overtake another on its starboard side should sound one blast on the horn.  The vessel to be overtaken, after ensuring that the starboard side is clear, should respond with a single blast indicating that overtaking boat should proceed.   Where the intention is to pass to port, the overtaking vessel should sound two blasts on the horn indicating their intention.  The vessel to be overtaken, after ensuring that the port side is clear, should respond with two blasts indicating that the overtaking vessel should proceed.

Where the vessel wishing to overtake issues one blast to pass to starboard or two blasts to pass to port and the forward vessel responds with five (5) blasts, they are indicating it is not safe to pass.