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Shapiro, Lewis, Appleton & Favaloro
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Right of Way on the Water: Which Side is Starboard?

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When you’re driving on a major highway, you should know to pass on the left, and keep slow traffic to the right. Although this is common knowledge to those on the road, the rules of the water are not always as well known to those navigating it. The question that many boaters have is who gets the right of way and when? This is a common problem that many amateur and experienced boaters to this day are confused as to the answer.

The IRPCS or theInternational Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea, states that the less maneuverable craft have more priority at sea than a more maneuverable craft. For instance, an oil tanker has the right of way over a jet skier (personal water craft operator).

However, the line becomes a bit more hazy when the boats become nearly the same size. Here are some guidelines for smaller water craft that one might encounter on the sea.

Sailboats have the right of way in almost all cases to power vessels, as they are controlled by the direction of the wind. However this changes when they are attempting overtake powered vessels.

Fishing vessels have the right of way to the above vessels regardless of their position to the other craft.

When you are attempting to overtake another vessel, whoever you are attempting to overtake always has the right of way. Also when passing you should never pass on the starboard (or right) side.

In smaller channels, jetties, and docks, smaller vessels under sixty five feet should yield and give right of way to larger vessels.

When approaching a craft head on you should turn to your starboard side to avoid the other craft. The approaching craft should turn to your port (or left) side, which is their starboard side.

Other more specific guidelines may be found here at the Royal Yachting Association.

Fishing, sailing, and other power boating activities can be fun for all those on the water, but safety is always a boater’s first priority. Please review all local guidelines, rules, and markings before embarking on any trip on the water. The more informed you are, the more fun you can have.