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Boat Etiquette


According to The Annapolis Book of Seamanship by John Rousmaniere, yachting is over 300 years old; older than baseball, tennis, golf, and almost every other outdoor sport. Tradition in the sport has evolved as part ceremony and part necessity. Boat etiquette has been developed not to one-up your neighbor with esoteric knowledge, but rather to establish a standard set of rules and boathandling skills that instill confidence in you and your fellow boaters. Your fellow boater is someone you may need to call on in times of grounding, docking, or any number of other reasons requiring aid. It is thus wise to establish a good rapport with him by abiding to existing customs and traditions. Privacy and mutual aid are the cornerstones of boat etiquette.


Wakes and Speed: The Rules of the Road dictate how to operate your vessel underway in order to prevent collision. However, even if no risk of collision exists, you are not free to do whatever you want when operating in the vicinity of other vessels. A thoughtless wake can do damage to docks and moored vessels. When overtaking a slower vessel in open water, do so with as much room as depth conditions allow and reduce your speed, if necessary, to avoid rocking the other vessel. There is nothing worse than being below in a slow trawler or sailboat, cooking breakfast, and being suddenly overtaken in close quarters by a wake-throwing, hurried boater.

Observe posted speed limits and note that sometimes the boat being overtaken may need to reduce its speed to accommodate the overtaking vessel. If you are overtaking a vessel under sail, overtake it well to leeward if possible, or pass astern in a crossing situation, so as not to block their wind. When sailing near a fleet of racing boats, stay well away or defer right of way in crossing situations. Finally, make sure fenders are in and no lines trail in the water. If you see someone with their fenders down, custom and tradition mandate you politely say something as a line in the water can create an unsafe and potentially expensive situation by fouling the prop or damaging the engine.

Anchoring and Mooring: When entering an anchorage or mooring area, do so at a slow speed without a wake that would upset your neighbor's dinner or drink. Don't anchor too close to other boats as the wind can shift resulting in fouled and tangled anchor lines, with hulls and dinghies banging against each other. Anchor near boats of similar size and hull characteristics. Multihulls behave differently from monohulls at anchor and light displacement boats will swing differently from heavier ones in changing wind and tidal conditions.

If you need to use a spotlight, make sure you don't inadvertently blind your neighbor. Likewise, sounds carry on the water, so before you launch into a critique of your neighbor's boat, remember they might be able to hear you. Consider using oars instead of an outboard on the dinghy. Tradition dictates that if you approach another vessel you should do so on the starboard side six to 10 feet away. Make yourself known by hailing loudly first before approaching. Some boaters are social, others reflective, so be friendly but not intrusive. Wait to be invited on board and if the tone of strangers doesn't change, move on.

Make sure you get permission before picking up a guest mooring. It may be reserved for another boat arriving later, or it may be unsuitable for your vessel. Consider what your own intentions are for the night. An increase in volume and barbecue smoke from your boat should be directly correlated with an increased distance from your neighbors.

In the Marina: At the fuel dock, be quick and remember that other boats may be waiting. Don't leave to buy groceries or fishing tackle. Tie up securely and remain on board. This will ensure that other boats don't inadvertently make contact without your knowledge. Assist other boaters with line handling and docking and move to another dock for shore-side business.

In a slip, keep your area clear of lines and power cords that may snag an unsuspecting passerby. Return marina dock carts back to their place as other boaters will be looking for them.

If carrying a big load in a dock cart and traveling slowly down a narrow dock, allow those behind you to pass. If forced to raft up alongside another vessel, walk across the foredecks, not through the cockpits. Similarly, rig docking lines so you can adjust them from your own boat. Instill confidence in your fellow boaters: fasten to cleats and pilings with century-tested knots such as a bowline. Leave the experimental knots at home!


Tips for Onboard Guests

Whenever guests are aboard, clearly explain what is expected of them, especially if they have little sailing experience. A pre-departure tour of your vessel, its systems, and any attendant peculiarities with a comprehensive stop in the head will make time underway more enjoyable.


Temperatures on the water are often cooler than inland, so let your guests know if they should bring any special gear. Non-skid, non-marking shoes will save you time spent scrubbing the deck later. Many people think a boat is the same as a house and may need reminding that there is finite space for personal gear on board. Duffel bags and soft luggage should be used instead of square, non-collapsing luggage. Sunglasses, suntan lotion, and a hat may be a few of the things you suggest.

Extended voyaging to foreign ports presents a unique set of conditions for guests. Make sure the proper crew lists, passports, and other boat documentation are on board before having to explain things to a Customs official. Other cultures may have a vastly different way of life that should be researched before leaving. Impress upon the less traveled that the rest of the world is not like home.

By assigning a space for guests and their gear, you will eliminate missing items later. Explain the importance of things being where you can find them quickly and ensure that items like flashlights, handheld compasses and radios, and dividers are returned to the places where they belong.

The expression "you missed the boat" is surely nautical in nature. Little is more frustrating than waiting for missing or late crew as a beautiful sunny and breezy day ebbs by. Make sure guests are aware of departure times and know that weather conditions, tides, and currents are constantly changing and need to be incorporated into a nautical outing.

Explain also that the time to rise and shine is based on the convenience of everyone aboard and the cruising plans for the day. You, as skipper, should be the first to rise and the others should follow shortly after. Make guests aware of the limited washing and toilet facilities on the boat and instruct them to be time considerate to others. Also instruct them thoroughly on the use of the marine head, the fact that there are no plumbers at sea, and the importance of water conservation when cruising between destinations.

Familiarize your guests with safety and emergency procedures before leaving the dock. Explain fueling procedures, docking and departing plans. Make sure someone on board is able to take over for you and operate the VHF radio to ask for help should you become disabled.

By being up front, honest, and direct with your guests, everyone on board will have a safe and pleasurable trip.