Rules of the Road: Part III

What are the right of way rules for standup paddle boards and kayaks encountering power boats and boats under sail? I always thought that a row boat had right of way over both sail and power. Are SUPs and kayaks considered to be the same as rowboats?

This is the third consecutive installment of my column where we are answering a reader’s question about the Rules of the Road. Bear with me – the questions are all slightly different and the discussion may get a little bogged down with technicalities, but there are some important points to be made with these discussions that have a direct application to safety at sea.

First, to establish the legal framework for the discussion, we are again talking about the International and Inland Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea , or “COLREGS,” which are enacted in this country under Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations, and we which we generally refer to as the “Rules of the Road.”

In our last installment, we addressed a reader’s concern about whether a hypothetical sailboat that is cruising with his sails up and also with his engine running could gain the right of way over an approaching power boat simply by taking the sailboat out of gear.  We responded by reminding all of our readers that, when meeting other vessels at sea, the Rules of the Road do not require one specific rule to be applied in a vacuum.  Instead, each encounter with another vessel requires all of the Rules to be read together, and a manipulation of the rules in the manner suggested would itself be a violation of the Rules.

That lesson also applies to this week’s question about rowboats and other “human-powered” vessels, but before addressing that question we should clear up a threshold issue from last week’s sailboat question that may not have been adequately addressed.  Specifically, is a sailboat that is cruising under sail, but with its engine running in neutral to charge the batteries, treated under the rules as a sailboat or a power boat? Rule 3(c) defines a sailing vessel as “any vessel under sail provided that propelling machinery, if fitted, is not being used,” but the Rules do not provide a definition for machinery that is “not being used.” 

Once again, our analysis requires us to look to other sections of the Rules of the Road, but in this case we don’t have to look far. The possible ambiguity in the definition of a sailing vessel is cleared up in the definition of a power-driven vessel.  Rule 3(b) defines a power-driven vessel as “any vessel propelled by machinery.” A sailboat that is cruising under sail with its engine running in neutral to charge its batteries is not being “propelled by machinery,” so it will not be treated as a power-driven vessel under the rules.

Other sections of the rules must also be applied in this analysis, including Part C, which refers to the lights and day-shapes required for various types of vessels.  Rule 25(e) in Part C provides that a “vessel proceeding under sail when also being propelled by machinery shall exhibit forward where it can best be seen a conical shape, apex downwards.” This rule also describes the boat as being “propelled” by machinery, and it provides a method with which a sailboat that is cruising with its engine in gear must inform other vessels that it should be treated as a power boat.

With this discussion behind us, let’s take a look at our reader’s question about standup paddle boards and other human-powered vessels.

First, human powered craft, including standup paddle boards, are “vessels” that must comply with the Rules of the Road like any other vessel. Rule 3(a) defines “vessel” as “every description of watercraft used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.”  So our reader is correct to include these vessels in a discussion about the Rules of the Road, but his understanding that rowboats always have the right of way is not exactly correct. The Rules of the Road say absolutely nothing about human-powered vessels of any kind, so there is no rule that automatically gives a rowboat the right of way over anyone. Instead, we are once again compelled to look a little deeper into the Rules.

All vessels, including rowboats, paddle boards and kayaks, are governed by Rule 2(b), which provides that “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.” Rowboats and sailboats will experience different limitations under different conditions, and the evaluation of the respective rights of each vessel will require their respective operators consider those limitations. The bottom line often comes down to an evaluation of who is the more maneuverable vessel in any given encounter.

As we have noted previously in this column, specific Rules of the Road cannot be read in a vacuum. Each encounter at sea brings its own set of circumstances and a solid understanding of all of the rules is critical to the safety of everyone who operates a vessel.

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and, as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates ( in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. He is also one of a small group of attorneys to be certified as an Admiralty and Maritime Law Specialist by the State Bar of California. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-438-8149 or at

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