When a collision happens on the water, who is to blame? While there are several factors to consider, one of the most important factors is who had the right of way.

A watercraft accident lawyer will investigate to determine who had the right of way when helping you seek just compensation for your accident-related injuries. If the captain who hit you failed to yield the right of way, your lawyer may be able to use this to recover just compensation on your behalf.

The Look-Out Rule (Rule 5 of the Federal Navigation Rules)

Before we talk about who has the right of way on the water, it is important to begin with a discussion of the “look-out rule.” Also known as Rule 5, this rule states that:

“Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”

In other words, everyone on the water has a duty to pay attention and take proactive steps to avoid a collision at all times. So, even if a boat captain has the right of way, this does not necessarily mean that the boat captain is free from responsibility in the event of a watercraft accident. If the collision could have been avoided, then both captains could be deemed partially at fault—and this could impact their legal rights when seeking financial compensation for their accident-related injuries.

Rights of Way on the Water Under the Federal Navigation Rules

Understanding who has the right of way on the water isn’t always easy. While some circumstances are fairly straightforward, the types of vessels involved, their locations and even their maneuverability can all come into play when determining which vessel is the “stand-on vessel” and which is required to “give way.” With this in mind, here are the rules of the water in some of the most common scenarios:

Two Power Vessels Approaching Head-On

When two power vessels are approaching head-on, Rule 5 says that each captain must be paying attention and prepared to take evasive action. In this scenario, the general rule is that neither vessel has the right of way, and both captains must turn to starboard to avoid a collision. However, in narrow channels, in scenarios involving vessels that are restricted in their ability to maneuver (RAM) and in various other circumstances, one captain may have a duty to give way.

Two Power Vessels Approaching at a 90-Degree Angle

When two power vessels are on a collision course at a 90-degree angle, the vessel to port must give way. Here, the vessel to port should give way by navigating astern (or behind) the stand-on vessel. But, again, if the give-way does not follow the rules of the water, then the stand-on vessel must take evasive action if a collision appears to be likely.

A Power Vessel and a Sailing Vessel on Any Collision Course

Any time a power vessel and a sailing vessel are on a collision course, the sailing vessel has the right of way—if it is under sail. If a sailing vessel is using its engine, then it is subject to the same rules as any other engine-powered vessel.

This is because vessels under sail are more difficult to maneuver than power vessels, and they can’t necessarily change course in all directions. If a power boat captain identifies a risk of collision with a sailing vessel under sail, the power boat captain should turn their bow to signal their intent early—letting the captain of the sailing vessel know that it is safe to maintain their course.

Two Sailing Vessels Approaching Head-On

When two sailing vessels (under sail) are approaching one another head-on, the vessel on a starboard tack has the right of way. A sailing vessel is on a starboard tack when the wind is hitting its beam on the starboard side. But, if either vessel is navigating under power, then this vessel becomes the give-way vessel regardless of which way the wind is blowing.

Two Sailing Vessels Approaching at an Angle

When two sailing vessels are approaching at an angle on the same tack (i.e., a port tack or starboard tack), the vessel to windward is the give-way vessel. The windward vessel is the one that is closest to the direction from which the wind is blowing. Since this vessel is closer to the wind, it has more power—and more maneuverability—and is, therefore, more likely to be able to change course to avoid a collision.

Overtaking Situations

One major exception to the rule that power vessels must always give way to sailing vessels under sail is the right-of-way rule for overtaking on the water. Any time one vessel is overtaking another, the overtaking vessel is the give-way vessel. This is true whether it is operating under engine power or harnessing the power of the wind.

Situations Involving Vessels Restricted in Their Ability to Maneuver

Vessels that are restricted in their ability to maneuver (RAM) are the stand-on vessel in nearly all scenarios. Some examples of RAM vessels include large cargo ships and cruise ships in narrow channels, as well as fishing and shrimping boats that have their nets in the water. When approaching RAM vessels, other boat captains should steer clear, signaling their intent early by pointing their power away from the RAM vessel’s location or apparent path.

Discuss Your Legal Rights with a Watercraft Accident Lawyer for Free

Were you injured in a collision on the water? If so, it is important that you speak with a watercraft accident lawyer about your legal rights as soon as possible. Your lawyer can investigate to determine who was at fault, and if you are entitled to financial compensation, your lawyer can fight to recover the compensation you deserve. To learn more in a free and confidential consultation, please call 800-499-0551 or tell us how we can reach you online now.

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