Rules of Right of Way in Waves

Rules of Right of Way in Waves

A while back I wrote about the rules of right of way in windsurfing. While those rules apply for 99% of occasions, once we get into spots with waves the rules change. In this case we have to know who has priority since the end result can easily be an injury or broken equipment that could have been avoided.


Sailing out has priority over those coming in on the wave

If you are on the wave you have speed and therefore manoeuverability. People sailing out are not guaranteed to be moving because of lulls or low wind. Therefore, if you are riding a wave it is your responsibility to get out of the way. Naturally we will try to not interrupt the ride of the person on the wave. However, if there is a possible collision and you are sailing down the wave, you have to get out of the way.

The one closer to the peak of the wave has priority

When two people are on the same wave the rule has been taking from surfing where the one closer to the peak has prefference. That person has made a better evaluation on the wave and has found the point where it starts to break, the best place to surf it. Don’t go to ride a wave if there is someone already on it closer to the peak. Even if you think you are not interfering, the person on the wave doesn’t know how you are going to act and can’t plan their ride properly. Also, your wake waves make for bumpy bottom turns and mess up the waves for the cut-backs.

Don’t sail in behind the wave

This is not so much a rule as a safety measure. Someone sailing out towards the wave can’t see what is going on behind the wave (if the wave is big enough). I have seen a few close calls where someone hits the wave at speed and jump, only to find someone sailing in behind the wave.

Don´t be in the waves if you are not going to surf them

As a closing note, I don’t mean to sound like a wave hogger but there is nothing quite as frustrating as following the rules and giving away a beautiful wave to someone who just sails along it as if there were no wave. With this I mean, not riding the wave but just “running away” from the wave. If you are just going to be sailing back and forth, don’t do it in an area where others want to actually ride waves. It just shows a lack or respect towards other sailors who go out of their way to find waves only to have to watch a good wave go unridden. Waves are rare in the sense that you only get 4 – 7 in a set and sometimes these sets can take quite a while to arrive. This means that there are a limited number of waves you are going to have lining up just right on all of your tacks during and hour or two hour long session. In the same way that if you are learning how to do a power gybe you would find it annoying if there were always someone practicing the water start in the only spot with flat water and constant wind. Not a great example but you get what I mean.
If you want to get into wave riding, do so in waves that are for your level so that you can at least attempt to ride the wave you are sailing in and work your way up bit by bit from there.

Ultimately, as with the standard rules of right of way, it is all about common sense and common courtesy. The rules in waves are there to make the experience safer and more enjoyable. If you mess up (like made a mistake, didn’t see the other rider, or thought you would make it, etc.) just apologise and if you are on the receiving end of such a mistake, accept the apology.

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.