Skip Links

Boating Etiquette: Culture Clash

Let's take a look at why powerboaters and sailors so often misunderstand each other's intentions.

Powerboat and sailboat passing

A powerboat and sailboat passing. (Photo: Zuzana Prochazka)

Whether you're a powerboater or a sailor — or a little bit of both — there's a good chance that, at one time or another, a boater of the opposite propulsive persuasion has raised your ire. And there's just as good a chance that you've been the cause of such consternation, perhaps receiving a loud verbal communication or two from across the water. So what gives? Why do sailing and powerboating seem to clash out on the water?

In truth, the intentional disruption of a peaceful sail or a hot fishing bite is virtually nonexistent. Almost nobody consciously wants to ruin the day of another boater, be they a wind-meister or a master-caster. Misunderstanding of and simple unfamiliarity with the other's needs and desires is the root cause of virtually all sail-versus-power conflicts. In the interest of bringing peace to Earth (or at least its waterways) we decided to spell out three things that each type of boater rarely understands about the other, which we should all keep in mind when we meet underway.

Crossing Conundrums

There's a hidden irony in that when it comes to how you cross with another boat, sailors and powerboaters, particularly anglers, often have diametrically opposite desires. Sailors concerned about boat speed commonly prefer that a moving powerboat cut behind them because the powerboat's wake can significantly cut the sailboat's speed if it hits the bow. But anglers with lines astern may well be wishing that sailboats go across their bow, so they don't snag a line or roil the chum slick. This means that each type of boater is inclined to do the exact opposite of what the other would actually prefer — out of a desire to "do the right thing."

"Any time a powerboat crosses my bow within four boat lengths away, it's inconsiderate at best and dangerous at worst," says 2004 Olympic sailor Carol Newman Cronin. "Even a small wake will slow down or stop a sailboat in its tracks."

Giving fishing boats ample room

Whether to cross ahead of or behind a recreational fishing boat with lines out is somewhat situational and not specifically addressed in the Rules. Your best option is to give the fishing boat ample room. (Photo: Getty Images/Kelly Dalling)

Unfortunately, beyond the basic power/sail dichotomy, even the different ways we use our boats can cause these preferences to change. Take that angler for example. Though he doesn't want a sailboat off the stern when a chum line is out, he may actually prefer that a crossing sailboat go well behind his boat when he's trolling.

"If a boat goes in front of me when I'm trolling with planer boards and lots of lines out, I lose all my options," explains Captain Drew Payne of the charter boat Big Worm. "If they go behind me, at least I can speed up or make a turn. I'm limited in how I can turn, mind you, but at least I have some alternatives."

Add different types of boaters into the mix and the situation becomes more complex. In many lakes, regulations dictate that tow boats pull skiers and wakeboarders in a clockwise direction. If a sailor doesn't realize this, he or she could easily choose a course that forces the tow boat to stop, sit, and wait for the path to become clear, or relocate. Meanwhile, a crabber running a trotline may not be worried about a sailboat passing well astern. But if it crosses closely off the bow, the crabber may have to release the trotline from the boat in order to make a turn or avoid being blown over the line after reducing headway. The examples of different preferences are just as copious as there are different boating activities.

Sailboats under power

Sailboats under power are ­considered powerboats with the same give-way obligations here. (Photo: Zuzana Prochazka)

Put all these factors together, and one quickly realizes that unless you're something of an expert at sailing, fishing, watersports, and just about every other activity one might be engaged in while afloat, it's practically impossible to ascertain what another captain's preference is — quite possibly until they start yelling at you.

There is, fortunately, one way we can all try to keep each other happy: No matter where or how you cross paths, give a wide berth.

How wide is wide enough? That's a judgment call depending on the boats, their speed, and the situation, and it's not specifically spelled out in the Rules of the Road or anywhere else. So just to be safe, after you decide on that wide berth, make it a little bit wider.

Wake-Up Call

Another hot issue is that of wakes. A boat can be damaged by too much wake, and its occupants can be injured. But with enough space, wakes diminish and a boat can often turn to reduce the impact after taking the appropriate cautions.

The flip side of the coin is the boat that, while in a narrow channel, goes a speed that necessitates a passing boat to travel at a speed that causes it to throw a bad wake. The slower boat should consider slowing when being passed, if that's appropriate under the circumstances, which will minimize the time the faster boat takes to overtake the slower boat.

But be mindful of the rules on maintaining course and speed, and of the need to communicate intentions. Also remember that some planing powerboats may throw a larger wake while traveling at pre-plane or barely planing speeds, and much less wake when they're on full plane — so traveling slower for them can, in some cases, actually causes a more disruptive wake than traveling faster.

Regardless, it's important to maintain an appropriate distance and communicate your intentions with the other boat: "Captain, this is the 34-foot Sea Ray intending to cross across your stern on your port side. We're reducing speed to 8 knots." A courtesy call like this gives the other boat the chance to respond: "Roger, captain, we'll reduce speed to facilitate your efficient pass. Note that we have our fishing outriggers fully extended and lines out."

Rules And Respect

It's often said that sailors read the Rules of the Road right up to where they believe it indicates that boats under sail are always stand-on vessels (meaning vessels that have the right to maintain course and speed) and stop right there. There's some truth to that, even though there are plenty of exceptions depending on the actual rules and circumstances. Here are some examples:

When a sailboat has its engine running, in official terms it's a powerboat. Then there's overtaking to consider. Any time one vessel overtakes another it must give way (yield to the other vessel), and that includes a sailboat passing a powerboat. Vessels constrained by draft also get priority, so if a sailboat is maneuvering with a powerboat that will run aground if it leaves the channel, the sailboat has to give way to the powerboat.

Of course, powerboaters are sometimes guilty of the very same rule-based tunnel vision. There's a clause in the rules that indicates that "vessels engaged in fishing" have restricted maneuverability and, thus, are the stand-on vessels. But if an angler continues reading, he or she will quickly learn that this applies to commercial fishing vessels only, not recreational fishermen, and that there are other exceptions. So while sailboats may have to make way for a commercial trawler hauling a net, they probably do not lose stand-on vessel status to a recreational center-console trolling for cobia.

Any time you feel that one rule applies exclusively, you should consider not only the facts and circumstances but any other rules that may have a bearing. We all should take the time to become very familiar with all the rules.

Sailboat is the stand on vessel

What it could look like from a powerboat with a racing sailboat coming head on. Here, the sailboat is the stand-on vessel. (Photo: Zuzana Prochazka)

"As a sailor who moonlights as a powerboater, I've observed that sailors are generally more familiar with the Rules of the Road," says Captain Zuzana Prochazka of Zescapes Worldwide Sailing Vacations. "However, sailors, don't get all high and mighty. It doesn't matter whether sails or an engine power your boat, we all share the same water and the same passion. So a little kindness and mutual respect goes a long way to keeping things safe and happy out there."

Aside from knowing the letter of the law, many situations that result in conflict could be avoided if boaters of all stripes simply paid a little more attention to showing some of that mutual respect, Prochazka suggests. While a sailboat may legitimately be the stand-on vessel over that trolling center-console, for example, if it pushes that right and forces the center-console to make a tight turn, the resulting tangled lines may well ruin the day for those anglers. Conversely, if the fisherman is being overtaken by the same sailboat and makes an alteration in course that forces the sailboat to tack, he may have just lengthened the sailor's voyage substantially or ended his or her chances of winning a race. So a little bit of consideration and respect shown by the boat that technically is the stand-on vessel could go a long way toward defusing all this sail-versus-power friction.

Taking Responsibility

When we talk about rules and responsibilities, we should always consider the following:

Rule 2: Responsibility

(a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master, or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.

(b) In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.

COLREGs (Navigation Rules)

Space Invaders

We all have our own personal space boundaries, but the 6-foot-apart rule for people that has become so common in the last two years isn't enough for the average boater to feel comfortable. The difference in just how much space is enough in any given situation, however, again varies greatly between sailors and powerboaters.

The range in comfort zones is often wildly different between racing sailors and everyone else. Those who race on a regular basis are quite accustomed to close-quarters maneuvering, often with just a few feet between the boats. In fact, to the typical powerboater, the start of many sailboat races looks more or less like 20 boats all trying to crash into one another at the same time. As long as there's no physical contact, this may not raise any hackles between the competitors. But when those same sailboats choose a course that will take them by a boat full of people enjoying a peaceful afternoon swinging on the hook, it may well look to the loungers as though the sailboat is bearing down directly on them. Though the sailboat may be on track to pass safely by, before it gets within 100 yards, the people on the boat at anchor could be entering panic mode.

"Powerboaters and anglers often have a level of mistrust when they see a sailboat heading toward them," says Captain Tom Weaver, a fishing guide and retired World Champion sailor. "But if it's a crewed racing sailboat, those usually are serious sailors who've gone to sailing school or spent years learning how to race a boat. So they have a skill level that's usually very high." Well, OK, but if that sailing crew isn't so experienced, things can still go wrong fast when they get too close, and doing so causes the powerboater unnecessary stress.

"We're all out there sharing the space but doing completely different things," he says. "So people don't necessarily know that you have fishing lines out or that making a turn could be problematic for you. If a sailboat is making you nervous, it might help to walk out on the back deck and simply point to the rods, or give them a friendly call on the VHF. The last thing the sailboat wants to do is get your lines wrapped around their keel, and pointing to your rods is a much more effective way of communicating than jumping up and down and yelling."

The bottom-line solution is, once again, allowing for some extra space. In any of these scenarios, rather than assume that you know what's going through that other boater's mind, it's best to simply assume that you don't — and stay far enough away that you'll never know. After all, if you never get close enough to another boat to hear the occupants yell at you, there probably won't be any yelling going on in the first place.

Related Articles


Click to explore related articles

seamanship boat handling lifestyle communication and etiquette


Lenny Rudow

New Boats, Fishing & Electronics Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Top tech writer and accomplished sports fisherman, BoatUS Magazine Contributing Editor Lenny Rudow has written seven practical boating books, won 30 awards from Boating Writers International — many for his marine electronics articles – and two for excellence from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He judges the NMMA Innovation Awards, and is Angler in Chief at FishTalk, his own Chesapeake-based publication. A great teacher and inspirational writer, Lenny hosts many of BoatUS Magazine’s very-popular how-to videos, which can be found on the BoatUS YouTube channel, or at