Like any type of boat, personal watercrafts must obey the nautical “rules of the road,” time-honored safety guidelines that detail how riders should respond in various scenarios. Ideally, you should learn these rules — and more — by taking a boating safety course. It’s the absolute best way to ensure your time on the water is spent safely and that you know how to handle various situations that may arise while underway, from understanding navigational markers to understanding who has the right of way when encountering other boaters.
It’s these latter encounters with other boaters that is often thought of as riding “etiquette” out on the water. Here are the five most common situations you may encounter, and the best way to respond to keep you and your passengers safe.
Unlike the roadway, on the water riders don’t have the benefit of lanes to keep traffic flowing smoothly. Should you encounter another boater head-on, close enough to risk collision, the rules of the road dictate that both craft should keep to their right (starboard) side, allowing the approaching boat to safely pass by along their left (port) side.
When approaching, or coming up on a slower boater traveling the same direction, from behind, allow the boat ahead to maintain its course and speed. Only when it is safe to do so, meaning you have adequate room and no other boating traffic in the vicinity, should you attempt to safely pass the craft on whichever side you deem the safest course. Should this encounter happen in a narrow channel, passing the vessel on the right is considered the preferred option.
Yet another common scenario is encountering another boat moving at a right angle to your current path, where if both boats were to continue there would be the potential for a collision. In this case, the boat to the right is considered to have the right of way. Hint? Think of it like two cars arriving at a four-way stop at the same time. The car to the right is considered to have the right of way, and should be the first car to proceed. In nautical terms, the boat to the right is considered the “stand-on vessel” and has the right of way to continue along their path. The “give-way” vessel is required to slow or stop to let the stand-on vessel safely pass.
Exceptions to the rule? If the other boat is not powered, like a sailboat or canoe, or is in the process of actively fishing, that vessel has the right of way regardless of its position. It’s your responsibility to give them plenty of room and change your path accordingly.
Approaching any other boater when you’re unclear about the rules and the risk of collision is imminent. Here, common sense prevails. If you’re unsure what to do in any situation, both craft should immediately slow and yield the right of way.
As to the common question of how close you can ride to other PWC or boats, keep at least a 200’ cushion between your craft and other boaters, even if they’re members of your same group. Always turn and look over your shoulder before making a turn to ensure another watercraft hasn’t come up alongside or slightly behind you. And when approaching a stopped boat or PWC, always slow your speed well in advance to avoid a collision.
Not only is it not wise, as visibility is limited and other boaters may not see you, it’s illegal in most areas. Likewise, avoid the temptation of splashing or “roosting” a friend. Even experienced boaters have misjudged the distance, found their craft slid more than expected, or had a wave unexpectedly affect their path.
Ultimately, stay alert and pay attention to your surroundings. Drive defensively and the fun will continue for seasons to come.