Your Stories, From The Edge


Almost Dead Right?

By Captain Bob Oatway
Published: August/September 2013

Knowledge of the rules of the road is critical. But so is common sense, opines this member, who's also a professional mariner.

Now, I've passed many of these classes in my 40-plus years on the water. I've even seen instructor boats get between my tow and the class, as a mother hen would do to protect her chicks. I have a lot of respect for these instructors, their skill, and the responsibility they carry. I'm confident right of way is taught by instructors in these classes. But I wonder if we impart enough common sense when we teach the rules of the road.

Photo of the tug Hope
Photo: Douglas Bernon
The tug Hope.

Tugboat captains are professional mariners and held to the strictest U.S. Coast Guard rules and guidelines. Because of recent upgraded regulations, tugs are now as well-equipped as larger ships, and the captains are held to an even higher standard than in the past. But all the rules in the book and a captain with the highest professional standards can't stop a barge or ship once it's too late.

I'd like to offer my professional advice to all boat operators and to schools teaching boat operation to young and old alike, in hopes that a tragedy may be avoided: Please teach waterway rules with common sense applied; never assume the other vessel sees you, knows the same rules, or cares; turn "early and obvious" so everyone is clear about your intent; and have fun with this wonderful sport, as it's one you can enjoy for the rest of your life.End of story marker

The Rules Of The Road And Right Of Way

The rules of the road or COLREGS (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea) that govern the interactions between vessels are designed to give mariners a set of guidelines that dictate the safe operation of their vessels, and to predict the expected behavior of others around them. One of the guiding principles is that the vessel that is most restricted in its ability to maneuver has the privilege of sticking to its course, often referred to as the stand-on vessel.

One corollary of this rule often taught to recreational boaters, "Sailboats under sail have the right of way," is more complicated than it seems, because as soon as merchant ships get in the mix, the rules are less absolute. Sometimes referred to as the "Rule of Tonnage," a vessel restricted in its ability to maneuver by its draft (meaning channel-bound) has the right of way over smaller, more maneuverable boats, even small sailboats, such as in the case Captain Oatway describes. Captains of all vessels have the duty to avoid collisions. Not steering your vessel out of harm's way puts you squarely at fault. For tips, see Avoiding Collisions with Big Ships. To brush up on the rules of the road, take the free online boating safety course created by the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety,


| 1 | 2


 Recommended Articles
Gray rule

Thumbnail photo of a sailboat after a collisionLight Up The Night

The right navigation lights are essential to safe piloting after dark


Thumbnail image of Right Of WayWho's Right In A Right Of Way?

Do you hold your course when faced with a fellow boater coming at you, even if you're in the right?

Thumbnail image of the Safe Skipper appApps To Keep You Safe On The Water

Your cell phone or tablet doesn't just make boating better, it can make it safer, too


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and much more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!