Boating in crowded waters during a holiday weekend such as Memorial Day, the 4th of July, or Labor Day can be downright stressful and dangerous. Let’s face it, holiday weekends are amateur hour with respect to both RVers and boaters. Most weekend warrior boaters work non-stop for 50+ weeks a year, leaving them precious few days to spend time on the water.

The average boater who takes his boat out about 4 times per season usually does not know what the “Rules of the Road” are and his experience levels are dangerously low. Realistically, the first and best rule for driving in crowded areas during holidays and other events is simple: Don’t do it. 

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, if you’re still here and the above scenario hasn’t caused you to reconsider your holiday boating plans, let’s review the Rules of the Road and some best practice you can adopt to mitigate the risk to you, your family and your boat.

Give-Way vs. Stand-On

First up, we are all familiar with the Coast Guard’s U.S. Inland Navigation Rules (commonly referred to as the Rules of the Road), right?

Good. Now let’s review the terms “Give-Way” and “Stand-On.”

The Rules state that the Give-Way vessel is the vessel that must yield in any given situation while the Stand-On vessel shall maintain course and speed. Naturally this leads to the all-important question: “What determines who is the Give-Way vessel and who is the Stand-On vessel?”

Rules of the Road SimplifiedSurvival Guide to Boating In Crowded Waters | Boating Safety

There are three ways boats can get tangled up with one another on the water: by meeting head on, overtaking or crossing. 

Let’s take a quick look at each situation.

1. Meeting Head On

If you are meeting head on or are close to meeting head on, assume that you are. In this case, each vessel is to maneuver to avoid each other by altering their course to starboard.

2. Overtaking

When one vessel decides to pass or overtake another vessel, the overtaking vessel (Give-Way) must keep out of the way of the vessel being passed (Stand-On). In this case, the Give-Way vessel is to pass to the stern of the Stand-On vessel.

3. Crossing

If two power driven vessels are crossing, the vessel on the starboard side has the right of way and is the Stand-On Vessel.

The “Right Of Way” Pecking Order Of Boats

Below are some acronyms that may help you to remember the priority of who has the right of way on the water. They are listed from highest to lowest of priority.

NUCNot Under Command

RAMRestricted in their Ability to Maneuver

CBD Constrained By Draft

FishingFishing vessels, actively engaged in fishing (gear out, nets deployed)

SailingSailing not motoring

PowerPower Boats and sailboats that are motoring

Best Practices

Below are some simple and common-sense approaches to dealing with crowded waterways.

  • If you don’t have to be in the middle of the chaos, don’t be.

Keep it at a dock or find a slip with a great view. Take the time to socialize with friends or guests you may have on board.

  • Arrive early; leave late.

During 4th of July fireworks shows, races and other events, find an anchorage early, then simply stay clear of all the chaos. After the show is over, wait it out. Relax, socialize and allow the rush of boats to clear the area before getting back underway.

  • Slow, then come to a stop (if you have to).

If the other boater seems to not understand the Rules, and if it’s safe to do so, slow her down. Slowing down creates more time to react and maneuver. Then if you have to stop (to avoid a collision), you can do so quickly. A small boat bumping into you in a very tight waterway is still better than it crashing into you.

  • Use the radio.

Don’t be afraid to use the radio and hail the other boat. You can simply ask their intentions and find out if they are a factor to be considered or not.

  • Maintain a good look out.

Between boats coming at you from all directions and restricted views from cabins and around bulkheads, it’s good to have others on board to help you look out for other boaters.

The Bottom Line

Simply being in crowded waters filled with inexperienced boaters increases your odds of trouble. If you find yourself in this position, the best things you can do are be familiar with the Rules, adopt best practices and use common sense.

Remember, regardless of who’s right or wrong, always do what it takes to avoid a collision! Safe boating everyone!