Rules of Right of Way

Rules of Right of Way

Once we are sailing back and forth we need to consider that we are indeed not the only ones on the water. In order to avoid collision we must abide by the rules of right of way of the sea. First we will look at the hierarchy of the different vessels on the water. The ones on top have more priority whereas the ones towards the bottom need to get out of the way (according to

Vessels not under command

Vessels restricted in their ability to manoeuver
(freighter that take ages to turn)

Vessels constricted by draft
(freighter in a channel)

Fishing vessels engaged in fishing, with gear deployed

Sailing vessels
(windsurfers & other sailing boats)


Power driven vessels


Basically, the ones that have more difficulty in manoeuvering are the ones who have priority.

Now that we have established whom we need to avoid and who needs to act to get out of our way, lets see how the rules apply withing the sailboat category:

In the first two rules, one person will not be able to see the other. We must keep in mind that the responsibility of avoiding the collision is always going to be of the person that can see the other. Makes sense, doesn’t it?


Overtaking person needs to avoid collision

When two windsurfers going on the same tack, one behind the other and the one behind is going faster with the intention to overtake. As the person that is in front is looking forwards (as they should) they are not going to see who is coming up behind them. So it is on the person that is going to overtake them to avoid collision. And no, shouting to get their attention to make them get out of the way does not make you exempt from this obligation nor is it good form to do so.

Rules of Right of Way Overtaking

Downwind over upwind

Again, two windsurfers sailing on the same tack. The one going that is downwind is going to have a hard time seeing the one upwind. Therefore, the one sailing upwind has the obligation to change his course if the one downwind decides to bear into the wind. If the one downwind can continue on the closed haul course, so can the one upwind. That being said, if you are going to bear into the wind, make the small effort to turn your head to avoid any scares or close calls.

Rules of Right of Way Downwind over Upwind

Port bow over starboard bow

This is the only rule for which a call had to be made in terms of priority as both people are in the same situation. Two windsurfers are headed toward eachother on different tacks. Both can see eachother and effectively one must get out of the way. Which? Instead of using technical terms, let’s just put it this way. The one with the left hand nearer to the mast must change their course to avoid collision.
However, the one with their right hand closest to the mast has the obligation of staying on their course. They cannot go changing their course as they please as it makes the decision difficult for the one whi must get out of the way to decide on which way to avoid into.

Rules of Right of Way Starboard over Port Tack

In the end, it all comes down to common sense and common courtesy. Don’t be a nuissance on the water and try to play fair when having to share the water with others. If in doubt on what to do you can just stop or turn around. More than once have I had to hit the brakes due to the other not knowing the rules and changing course when they shouldn’t or simply being arrogant dicks and ignoring all rules. Most of the close call have been when two people decide they can both still arrive upwind of the predicted collision point and so not have to bear away.

As a small side note, these rule apply to when we are sailing on “flat” water. That is to say, not in breaking waves. When we are sailing in breaking waves where people are riding the wave and jumping around, the rules are a little different. I will write a post on that in the future. However, these are the ones that will count 95% of the time so abide by them.