American Family Insurance Boating Etiquette

Boating Etiquette

Updated January 1, 1 . AmFam Team

Learn more about proper boating etiquette and what is expected when you’re on the water.

For the most part, boaters are a very happy group of people. And why not, they’re living the dream, cutting through the waves, enjoying fresh sea air and sunshine. But encountering rule breakers on the water can be like a storm cloud to a boater. Make sure you’re a good member of this amiable community by following the rules of the water, using common sense and lending a friendly, helping hand when you can.

Rules about passing. Generally, the rules of the water for passing are similar to those on the road, if you’re meeting a boat on the open water, it has the right of way if it’s coming from your right. You have the right of way if it's coming from your left (which is why the running light on the right or starboard side of your bow is green and the one on the left or port side is red.)

It’s fine to pass on the right, if you can do it safely without forcing the boat you're passing off course or into oncoming boats.

It’s okay to use your horn when passing. Beep once to let the boat ahead know you are passing on the starboard side, or twice to pass on the port side.

Slow down. You should take the opportunity to enjoy the full extent of your boat’s horsepower, but when a boat you’re approaching is not going fast, slow down. You don’t want your wake to overtake a boat that is out for a relaxing cruise.

If you’re approaching boats at anchor, slow down. These people are not expecting a lot of movement and if you send out a big wake, it could upset drinks, dinner or passengers. Plus, you might cross paths with these boats multiple times, so make a good impression.

Anchoring your boat. Take a minute before anchoring near other boats to gauge their swing radius and anchor lines. No one wants tangled anchor lines.

If you think your boat will be getting loud, anchor well downwind of others. Likewise, if you see a boat with a lot going on and you want a peaceful stay, anchor as far upwind as you can.

Lend a helping hand. Any time you’re getting fuel, launching a boat or on a dock and a boater needs help holding off a rail from rubbing a piling, throwing a line, whatever it is, always be there to lend a hand. They’d do the same for you.

If you run across a boat that needs help or has run out of gas, always stop. It’s required at sea, but on any body of water this help-your-neighbor policy is common courtesy among boaters.

Keep it quiet. Be a courteous boater. Sound carries on the water and your conversations, your music and your dog can be heard on nearby boats looking for peace and quiet.

After long days on the water, boaters like to turn in early so if you’re in a dingy around other anchored boats at night, using oars instead of your outboard is appreciated.

Docking at the marina. When you’re docked in a marina, keep your area shipshape. Keep walkways clear by stowing hoses, cords, buckets, extra lines and tackle. Any marina equipment you borrow should be returned for others to use.

When stopping for gas, get your boat fuel, then move your boat out of the way. Even if there isn’t a line behind you, someone could pull in. If you’d like to hit the store or bait shop, head to another docking area or guest slip.

When launching your boat. A boat launch can be a busy place. Keep things moving along by prepping your boat, unloading and transferring gear in the staging areas away from the ramp. Don’t drain, don’t clean, and don’t waste time on the ramp. Everyone wants to be either on the water or off the water, just like you.

As soon as your boat enters the water off the ramp, quickly move your boat down the dock away from the ramp, or to a courtesy dock.

Be efficient when trailering your boat up the ramp at the end of the day. Drop your driver on the dock then move aside until your rig approaches the top of the ramp, ready for you.

Boating near sailboats. If you’re overtaking a sailboat, try to pass them well to leeward, or astern in a crossing situation, so as not to block their wind.

Sailboats need a larger radius of space to maneuver. Keep the distance between you at least four of their boat lengths.

Don’t cross a sailboat’s bow within four boat lengths, or create a wake, as this can stop a sailing boat in its tracks.

Courtesy around fishing boats. Don’t cut behind a fishing boat. Gauge the distance of their trolling lines and steer clear so you don’t snag them.

Try not to pass within 40 yards around a fishing boat.

With the exception of sailboats which have the right of way, don’t cut across the front of a fishing boat trolling lines.

Watch for skiers and wakeboarders. Never follow a skier or a boarder too close, and if you need to, pass them with a wide berth.

Most lakes require skiers and boarders to be pulled in a counter-clockwise direction. However, if the lake doesn’t have rules about skiers or wakeboarders, it’s up to you to pay attention when approaching them.

Following rules and using common sense is the boater’s way, but not everyone is going to react perfectly. So give people the benefit of the doubt. In general, boaters all want the same thing, a nice, stress-free day out on the water.

Tools & Resources

Explore our tools and smart tips.