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Old 11-12-2001
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Sue & Larry is on a distinguished road
Rules of the Road

Do the rules of the road change when you are sailing on a narrow body of water? A power boater told me that when sailing shore-to-shore on a river or an area less than two miles wide a sailboat does not have the right of way over a powerboat. I thought I knew the law, but this is a new one to me.

Sue & Larry respond:
It’s a new one to us too. The rules that we all operate under, both sailboats and powerboats, are those laid out in the publication by the US Department of Transportation and the US Coast Guard entitled, Navigation Rules, International – Inland.

Your power-boating acquaintance may have confused some of the exceptions to Rule 18, Responsibility Between Vessels. Part (a)(iv) reads, "A power-driven vessel underway shall keep out of the way of a sailing vessel."

Exceptions to this rule are as follows:

Rule 9, Narrow Channels, where section (b) reads, "A sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel that can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway." This rule doesn’t have anything to do with how wide a body of water is at any given point.

Rule 10, Traffic Separation Schemes, where section (j) reads "…A sailing vessel shall not impede the safe passage of a power-driven vessel following a traffic lane." Traffic separation schemes are generally only set up in busy ports like New York or San Francisco where there is heavy commercial traffic. The separation scheme creates traffic lanes for inbound and outbound traffic.

Rule 13, Overtaking, where section (a) reads, "...Any vessel overtaking any other shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken." This rule would indicate that a sailboat overtaking a powerboat would have to give way.

The navigation rules, along with the exceptions to the rules, are written so that vessels that need the right of way are given it in each special circumstance. Have fun letting your powerboat friend know he still needs to give you room while sailing.

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