Sailboat docked by the pier.

How to Operate a Boat Safely

Updated March 4, 2024 . AmFam Team

Knowing the rules of boat safety will help you get around waterways with confidence. Mastering boat vocabulary will help turn you from boating novice to captain.

You’ve worked hard and found the boat of your dreams — now it’s finally yours. But now what? There’s a lot to learn about boating and just getting a feel for operating a boat can be a challenge. With the waves pushing and pulling and having to account for wind and slowing down, landing your boat safely can seem daunting.

In the end, it’s all about knowing how to handle each of these issues separately, then combining all these skills together. Safe boating involves launching, docking and navigating the waterways, as well as being prepared in advance for any outcome. And understanding the rules of the waterway before you launch will not only make your boating experience more enjoyable, it can help to make it safer for everyone aboard, too!

Review the Rules of the Waterways Before Boating or Yachting

Boating in highly congested areas like marinas, harbors and lakes during a busy holiday weekend requires boat captains to be aware of their surroundings. Additionally, they need to abide by the laws and rules for the class of boat or yacht under their command. Unlike rules of the road, these rules can vary depending on your geographic location local jurisdiction.

What You Need to Know About Beacons and Buoys

On the water, buoys are like floating road signs. The different colors tell you where to go and how to proceed. Buoys and markers often draw an invisible boundary across a body of water. Take a look at the various types of frequently-encountered buoys and markers and their meaning.


Beacons are either permanently mounted or fixed-to-the-seabed structures that range from lighthouses to single-pile poles. Most will have aids attached to them, like lights or signage. Unlighted beacons are called Daybeacons, whereas lighted beacons are called Lights.


Buoys are floating, anchored objects. Messaging and meaning are dependent on their shape and color. You may also get indications of how to navigate around them by their color. Be aware that floating buoys can drift or be tethered on a long line. As a result, use caution when approaching buoys closely. Use these in conjunction with a fixed point of reference, when possible, to validate navigation.

Red and Green Buoys

These buoys help to direct boats much like a traffic lane. When heading upstream, the red buoys should be on the boat’s right side (starboard). As you head inland — or upstream — the green buoys should be on the left (port) side of the boat. If you see those buoys across from each other, drive between them. They help to identify a route that’s deep enough to support traffic.

Black and White Striped Buoys

On inland waters, these buoys require special attention. When the stripes are running up and down (vertical), they indicate an obstruction to navigation. You shouldn’t pass between two striped black and white buoys due to nearby underwater obstacles.

No-Wake Buoys

Typically found in and around shorelines, boat launches and other congested waterways, no-wake buoys indicate an area where idling in forward gear is mandated. You shouldn’t come screaming up on a no-wake buoy and slow down at such a rapid rate that you create a big wave that rocks nearby anchored or slow-going boats. No wake zones are also designed to reduce beach and shore erosion, so be sure to pay attention to these important markers.

Danger Buoys

Positioned along major waterways or even in areas on lakes where underwater materials present great danger to boats, danger buoys are usually black with a red horizontal band. They usually mark an area with an isolated danger that resides directly below or near the buoy. Waters are typically navigable around such buoys, but it’s best to steer clear of these areas.

Know the Right of Way

Boats come in different shapes and sizes and vary in power and maneuverability. This creates certain right-of-way exceptions. For example, generally we drive on the water like we do on the road: driving on the right with oncoming traffic approaching on our left. But unlike cars, a faster boat overtaking a slower boat from behind must steer around the slower vessel.

When Passing from Behind…

Use your horn to indicate on which side you’ll pass: one toot for starboard, two for port. The safest practice is to wait for a return acknowledgement signal.

When Approaching Another Boat at an Angle…

Treat the encounter like an unmarked intersection. If you’re on their left, you should steer out of their path. When coming from the right, they should be the one to yield.

Docking and Launching

Keep in mind that boats don’t drive like cars, and they don’t come to a complete stop. So, it helps to start slowing down long before your destination. Approach the dock at a 30 to 45-degree angle and aim toward the center of where you want to land.

At about one boat length from the dock, turn the wheel away from the pier and bump the motor into gear to swing the bow away from the dock and keep you floating toward it. Have the tie lines and fenders ready to deploy. Bump the boat into reverse to stop your movement when perpendicular. Then, deploy the fenders and tie up.

Keep Fenders in Position or Close At-Hand

Be sure to have fenders ready to hang over the side and lines coiled on both the forward and aft sides. If you need to make an unexpected stop — or even pair up with another boat in open water, these will be ready.

Prep Docking Lines Before Landing

Making your way out into open water is more than just preparing for your time out on the water. By focusing on what you’ll need to land safely at a pier or docking slip, you’ll be better prepared when that time comes.

Launching the Boat is Pretty Simple

After everyone’s got their life vests on, and you’ve rolled through your safety checklist, it’s time to launch the boat. Do this by untying the lines from the moors and have a few hands gently push the boat away from the slip. Engage the motor, steer safely beyond the no wake zone, and have a blast!

Beautiful days on the water are one dream we can all share. Make sure your boat is protected with the right coverage. Reach out to your American Family Insurance agent and get a customized quote today. You’ll feel great knowing that you’ve got the right coverage for your big investment.

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