Understanding Virginia’s Boating Safety Right-of-Way Rules

Aug 10, 2023 | Blog

Virginia Boating Safety

Unlike paved roads, there are no clear signs about navigating the water to steer clear of collisions. By understanding basic right-of-way rules to avoid collision, boat operators can handle potentially dangerous situations with grace and safety. 

What to Do When Approaching Another Vessel Head-On 

When two boats are headed toward each other, and there’s a potential risk of a head-on collision situation, Virginia boating safety rules dictate that each vessel should alter its course to starboard in order to pass to the port side of the other boat.

If obstacles or other factors make this maneuver impossible, the boat operator should make a series of two short sounds and then proceed to port. In acknowledgment, the other vessel should respond with the same sounds to indicate understanding.  

Crossing and Overtaking Situations 

Because boats travel in various directions and at different speeds, crossing, and overtaking situations are relatively common, especially during peak seasons and holidays. 

Overtaking another vessel happens when a boat travels at a higher speed and must pass around the other vessel. This maneuver requires early action to avoid unnecessary risk and to maintain adequate clearance between itself and the boat that is being overtaken.

To alert the other boat of your intent to overtake, sound a horn. The number of horn blasts depends on whether you are passing port or starboard. For passing to port, use two horn blasts. Use a single horn blast to indicate passing to starboard. 

Passing Vessels 

When two boats are approaching each other at (or near) right angles, the boat that can see the port side of the other boat is the give-way vessel and has the duty to move out of the way of the stand-on vessel. The ideal position is to pass behind the other boat at the stern at a consistent speed. 

If, however, maintaining a consistent speed and direction would result in or increase the risk of a collision, the give-way vessel may need to slow down, stop, or change direction. 

Approaching a Non-Powered Craft

If a motorized vessel approaches a sailboat or canoe without motorized power, the non-powered craft has the right of way. This means the motorized craft must maneuver out of the course of the other boat.

Other Virginia Boating Safety Rules

In addition to following right-of-way rules, there are other safety rules that boat operators should be aware of. For example, federal regulations regarding life jacket safety require a working and appropriately sized life jacket on board for each passenger. 

Further, anyone under 13 years old must wear a life jacket while on the water. An exception is when the boat is anchored or docked. 

Another pertinent rule includes the prohibition of personal watercraft (PWC) operation before sunrise or after sundown when there is no longer any daylight.

Finally, there should be proper lighting for vessels along with appropriate audible devices, including an alarm, whistle, bell, or horn. The specific rules vary based on whether the vessel is motorized or non-powered. The colored lights required for motorized craft help other boaters determine which side of the boat is port and starboard when visibility is low.

Contact an Experienced Boat Accident Attorney Today 

Regardless of whether your boat technically has the right-of-way, it’s important to be vigilant and ready for anything – especially if the other vessel does not know the rules or isn’t following them.

At Geoff McDonald & Associates, our personal injury law firm has more than 25 years of experience helping accident victims, and there is no fee unless we win. Call us now to schedule a free consultation.

Geoff McDonald and Associates: 804-888-8888.


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