top of page

Key Rules of the Road to Remember

As you age, your mind isn’t as sharp as it once was. You find yourself forgetting things, things like where did I leave my car keys, did I remember to bring my PFD, and did I remember to properly secure my boat. And some things that we haven’t had to think about in a long time we forget, like how to solve quadratic equations.

Which brings me to why I am writing this post. Recently, there was an incident that happened during a Red Bull event between some boaters and the Spirit of Portland. From comments posted on Facebook about the incident, it was clear that some boaters have either forgotten rules of the road or simply choose to ignore them. I can’t address the latter, but I can the former. I fall into the former as well because I don’t find myself using all the rules of the road when I am out paddling, especially if I am paddling on a body of water restricted to non-motorized boats. So here are some key Coast Guard rules that apply to paddlers I felt I would touch on to refresh paddlers’ memories.

Key Rules of the Road to Remember

1. If a boat is approaching you from behind, maintain a straight course. It is the responsibility of the approaching boat to keep an eye out for obstacles in his path. However, as a paddling friend of mine will tell you, some powerboat operators think the water belongs to them and that everyone else should move out of the way. If you encounter one of these individuals, your best course of action is to make yourself as visible as possible by grouping up, waving paddles, shouting, or blowing your whistle (everyone’s required to have one of these). If you have a shotgun, two shots across the bow might get the operator’s attention—just kidding on this last point.

If a boat is approaching you from head on, you want to pass port to port. This will keep you from crossing in front the approaching boat.

2. Do paddlers have the right of way? Well that all depends. Coast Guard rules stipulate that more maneuverable boats must yield the right of way to less maneuverable boats, so powerboats must yield the right of way to canoes and kayaks, canoes and kayaks must yield the right of way to larger, slower vessels and sailboats. Larger vessels cannot turn or slow quickly, and they may be limited to the amount of directional change they can make in shipping channels.

3. Canoeists and kayakers should avoid paddling in the shipping channel and stick to the right or left bank except to cross the channel. If you’re paddling with a group, cross the channel as a group for two reasons: 1) A large group of canoes and kayaks is easier to see than one small boat. 2) Crossing as a group minimizes the inconvenience to other boaters moving up and down the channel. You also want to cross taking the shortest line from one side to the other.

4. If you’re paddling at night, the Coast Guard requires that you have a white, directional light on board. Contrary to some misinformation in the paddling community, a flashlight fulfills this requirement.

HOWEVER, I don’t recommend using a flashlight. Why? The Coast Guard stipulates that the white light must be shown in the direction of oncoming vessels. Unless you’re not of this world and have eyes in the back of your head—some children will claim emphatically that their mothers have eyes in the back of their heads—it’s hard to see a vessel approaching from behind. Moreover, you have to spin around in your seat to shine the light behind you. Try doing that in a kayak. It’s only a little more doable in a canoe, but in either case you have to stop paddling to grab the flashlight and shine it on the approaching vessel. That’s why I recommend that if you are going to be out on the water after dark that you purchase a wand light. The light shines in a 360° horizontal arc, which allows you to continue paddling. A suction cup base allows you to attach the light to the deck of your boat. The one drawback with the suction cup is that it doesn’t stick on some boats, so you might need to rig some sort of plate on which to attach the light. Some of the lights come with a lanyard you can use to attach the light to your PFD.

5. Never anchor within the shipping lane. It's dangerous and against the law.

6. You must keep a sound-producing device with you in the boat. It's the law. A whistle serves several purposes, the three biggest being: it will warn other boaters approaching too closely to stay clear; if you're caught in fog, a whistle will serve to let others who might be on the water and in the fog know your whereabouts; and if you get in trouble, five quick blasts, not three, will alert other boaters that you are in need of help.


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page