Before heading out on the water for the season, we like to review the systems on our boat and handling procedures. Even experienced boaters run the risk of becoming complacent, and some boaters may simply not be aware of the nautical rules of the road. Understanding the terms “give-way”, “stand-on”, and “overtaking” is especially important for collision avoidance; the terminology is intended to ensure that everyone knows what to expect when boats encounter each other on the water.

Stand-on, Give-Way Rule

A boat approaching your port side is the “Give-Way vessel.” The Give-Way vessel is expected to change speed and/or heading to avoid a conflict and potential collision. The Give-Way vessel should change speed and direction early enough to make it obvious to the Stand-On vessel that evasive action is being taken to avoid a conflict. The “Stand-On-vessel” on the other hand is expected to remain on its course and speed.

Conversely, when a boat is approaching you from your starboard side, they are the “Stand-On vessel” and you become the “Give-Way vessel.” You should alter heading and/or speed early and deliberately so that the Stand-On vessel can continue on their heading and speed.

Diagram of Red/Green Navigation Lights

The Give-Way/Stand-On rule of the road is intended to avoid the situation where both vessels alter speed and heading, creating greater confusion and danger. If the Give-Way vessel doesn’t take early discernable action, the system won’t work. Keep in mind that not all boaters are aware of the Give-Way, Stand-On rule. If the Give-Way vessel is not taking evasive action, you will need to adjust accordingly to avoid a collision. Both vessels are required to take evasive action if a collision is imminent or possible.

The vessel’s night-time navigation lights can help determine the vessel’s Stand-On or Give-Way status. If you are seeing another vessel’s Red navigation light, then you are the Give-Way and they are the Stand-On. If another vessel is seeing your Green navigation light, then you are the Give-Way. It all becomes easy when focusing on the Red and Green Navigation Lights on vessels.

Overtaking Rule

What about overtaking another boat from behind? Boats approaching from behind are known as the “Burdened vessel” or “Give-Way vessel” which has the responsibility to slow down and give a wide berth for the boat they are passing. Boat wakes can cause uncomfortable rocking, possibly causing damage to items in the boat you’re passing and even personal injury for which you are responsible; be sure to slow down and keep a wide berth. Keep in mind that a boat may be about to pass you, always look behind before making any sudden turns to avoid a potential collision; fast, smaller boats can be harder to see when behind you and may not have AIS.

Planing-Hull Boats vs Displacement-Hull Boats

The stand-on, give-way rule becomes less clear when a fast planing-hull boat is approaching the starboard side of a much slower displacement or semi-displacement-hull boat. Technically speaking, if the vessel approaching from your starboard can see your green sidelight, they are deemed a crossing vessel and have the right of way (they are the stand-on vessel). If they can’t see the green side light, they are an overtaking vessel and you have the right of way (you are the stand-on vessel). Unfortunately, many boaters mistakenly believe that they are automatically the stand-on vessel if they are approaching your starboard side. Fast boats on the plane tend to see slower trawler-style boats as fixed or stationary objects. A planing vessel has the speed and maneuverability when approaching at an angle to go around and behind the slower vessel, which is the safest/appropriate option, rather than crossing in front of another vessel’s bow. The faster planing boat is implicitly the overtaking vessel and therefore the give-way vessel.

Head-on Approaches

When passing a boat approaching head-on, boats normally pass port to port like cars. There may be hazards in the water, or other traffic concerns that require boats to pass starboard to starboard. It is best to make a deliberate, obvious turn ahead of time to tell the approaching boat on which side you plan to pass. If uncertain of the other captain’s intentions, hail the boat in question on Ch 16 (on Low Power) to agree on which side you will be passing, port to port or starboard to starboard.

A review of the “rules of the road” and frequent self-reminders will help ensure a safe and pleasant boating experience for captain and crew.