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Sailing Rules and Right of Way

Go To: Sailing - Learn To Sail

Posted on 27 February 2008 19:18

Going sailing is just like going driving - there are certain rules you have to sail by. Read on to find out the most important ones.

Once you get into racing - there are literally hundreds of rules to pay attention to, and if you start venturing into shipping channels and the open sea you have many hazards and things to watch out for - but for general club sailing or cruising, there are four main rules.

Port Gives Way, Starboard OK

This is where a boat on port tack gives way to a boat on starboard tack. The easy way to tell which "tack" you are on depends upon which side of the boat the helm is (or should be) sat on.

Port gives way, starboard ok

So, if the helm is on the port, or left side of the boat (and the mainsail is on the right side), you are on port tack; similarly, if the helm is on the right (starboard) side of the boat and the sail is on the left side, you are on starboard tack. If a boat is headed towards you, and they shout "starboard", it is generally a warning that you are expected to keep clear.

Windward Boat Keeps Clear

The windward boat (the boat nearest to the wind, or upwind of the other boat), must keep clear and head behind the leeward boat to pass them. There are many racing rules based around this rule and various manipulations of it, but this is the basic rule.

Windward boat keeps clear

Overtaking Boat Keeps Clear

When one boat is overtaking another, they should do it to the leeward side, and the overtaking boat must make every attempt to keep clear.

Overtaking boat keeps clear

However, the windward rule also comes into play; the boat being overtaken must not bear away from the wind, towards the overtaking boat, unless the wind shifts accordingly, and if the wind heads (moves as shown in the diagram), the overtaken boat must keep clear.

Power Gives Way to Sail

Whether it is hand power (oars) or motor powered (motor boat), powered boats must keep clear of sail boats. However, this does not override the overtaking rule or starboard rule. This rule does overrule the windward boat keeps clear rule.

Power gives way to sail


Although these are the universal rules (hopefully) known to all sailors, it is not to say that everyone will play by them. For example, although power gives way to sail, you can move easier than a 500ft long supertanker, so don't expect it to move. If the other boat is clearly not going to move - you should, to prevent an accident, even if you're in the clear.

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