Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water

Who has the “Right-of-Way?”

Hierarchy of right-of-way is presented here; from highest right-of-way to the lowest right-of-way. I think of it as a totem pole; with the vessel with the most right-of-way at the top, and the lowest at the bottom. Here goes!

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water

Overtaken Vessel

This vessel has top priority. If you are fast enough to pass someone, then you are the “give-way” vessel; the one you are overtaking is the “stand on,” meaning they should stand on course and speed, and you move around them.

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water

NUC Not Under Command

Remember that “A” is the first letter of the alphabet, and has three sides, so, Aground, Adrift, Anchored. Other than being overtaken, Not Under Command is the first on the totem pole. Any of those vessels can’t give way even if they wanted!

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
Blue Bayou at anchor.
, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
Adrift – not anchored, not motoring, sailing, or fishing.
, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
Raft-up in the anchorage. 

RAM Restricted in the Ability to Maneuver

Like an aircraft carrier that needs a mile to make a turn! Any vessel, that, due to it’s design or work, cannot move easily to avoid others. 

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
This dredge cannot possibly maneuver easily while attached to  hundreds of feet of pipeline, and operating an enormous drill-like device. It is an example of “Restricted Ability to Maneuver.”

CBD Constrained by Draft

The cruise ship in the channel, the sailboat in a small channel with jet skis around… Technically, this is for International Waters, not Inland, however, it’s followed by most as a courtesy even inland to the vessel limited by her draft.

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
While this is a loose translation of “Constrained by Draft,” if there also was a personal watercraft drawing four inches, Monkey’s Uncle with her five foot draft would have more right-of-way.


Not jon boat, dog, and cooler, but actual fishing as in dragging a lot of nets and big tackle – nets, lines, trawls – fishing apparatus that precludes quick maneuvering. Not to be confused with trolling, which is dragging a few lines and allows fur turns and does not actually restrict their ability to maneuver! This is commercial endeavor; serious people earning their tough living; not million-dollar sport fishing machines that can turn on a dime.

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
This shrimper actually is not engaged in fishing. However, once she lowers those booms, and gets those nets and doors in the water, she will be engaged in fishing. She will be trawling.


Next to the bottom of the totem pole of right-of-ways, and, sailboat are not even sailing all the time, so… only when they are actually sailing and not overtaking anyone at all, or dealing with any of the aforementioned situations.

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
Under sail; engine either not operating, or running, but not engaged.


Vessels under power. Least right-of-way

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
While this is a trawling fishing vessel, her nets are not deployed, so as she motors here, she is simply another vessel under power.
, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
The sailboat with it’s engine engaged is under power – whether the sails are raised or not.

Pedestrians of the Sea

Then there’s those underpowered  or manually-propelled cases; paddle boards and kayaks and people doing yoga on floating planks. I like to think of them as pedestrians; somewhere between fishing and sailing. They can’t really move easily…

, Hierarchy of Right-of-Way on the Water
Those manually-propelled vessels… This group of three is out several weekends a year – the kayak is just beyond the edge of the frame here. All three of these, and paddleboards, to me, are rather like pedestrians – they have even less ability to evade you; so they should be especially watchful, and stay out of the channel if possible. And we should avoid them.

What to read next: US Aids to Navigation – Red Right Returning


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