Chapter 6: Nautical Rules of the Road

Port, Starboard, Stern

Port: If a power-driven vessel approaches within this sector, maintain with caution, your course and speed.

Starboard: If any vessel approaches within this sector, keep out of its way.
(Note: This rule may not always apply if one or both vessels are sailboats.)

Stern: If any vessel approaches this sector, maintain with caution, your course and speed.

Operating Rules

Boat operation is subject to a series of rules similar to those governing road traffic. The Collision Regulations and the Criminal Code of Canada are two valuable sources of information for anyone interested in more details on the regulations governing the operation of a vessel. The following are a few of the many rules they set down.

Rules of the Road

The rules of the road in navigation are often similar to the rules on land. The Collision Regulations contain many rules pertaining to navigation; however, four rules are basic to navigation.

A boat that is overtaking another must steer clear of the overtaken vessel's path.

Rules of the Road

A vessel approaching from the port side must give way. (A) keeps clear of and must avoid crossing ahead of (B).

Rules of the Road

When two vessels are heading toward each other, each must reroute and pass to the right of the other. (A) blows one blast and alters course to starboard, (B) blows one blast and alters course to starboard.

Rules of the Road

As a general rule, rowboats, sailing vessels and canoes have the right-of-way over power- driven boats. However, if one vessel is unable to maneuver as it normally would, the most maneuverable vessel gives way.

Rules of the Road

Responsibility for avoiding collisions is shared by everyone using the waterway. Common sense must be used along with alertness and caution.

The concept of taking early and substantial action must be applied in all cases.


The Collision Regulations requires that anyone operating a vessel be constantly on the alert, both in sight and sound.

Operating a vessel requires the operator's sustained attention; operators must be constantly alert and watchful to everything around them. Not only must they take account of what is happening in front, behind and on both sides of them, like a road vehicle driver, but they must also pay attention to what is under them. A single glance at the sky is enough to see the early signs of bad weather, or perceive impending dangers (electrical wires or others).

The water surface can also conceal dangers: tree trunks, water plants, rocks near the surface, etc. For that reason, they required deep concentration when operating a boat. This alertness allows the operator to adjust speed to boating conditions, and thereby enhance the safety of the operator and of others.

The Effect of Waves

One of the rules governing the operation of a vessel is that every vessel is responsible for the effects of its wake. Boat operators must therefore ensure that the wake of their vessel does not endanger nearby pleasure boaters or cause property damage to their vessels.

Boaters coming to help must not compound the circumstances of an accident or, for that matter, cause another one. The effect of the boat's wake is extremely important when approaching the victim. Steps must be taken to ensure the wake is not so high that it washes over the victim.

Lastly, pleasure craft operators must know that they cannot interfere with marine signals, as stipulated in section 439 of the Criminal Code of Canada, by:

  1. mooring the vessel to a signal, buoy or other sea-mark used for navigation; or
  2. willfully altering, removing or concealing a signal, buoy or other sea-mark.

Provisions of the Collision Regulations pertaining to the conduct of pleasure craft in sight of other vessels.

Know that the operator of a pleasure sailing craft, that has the wind on the port side, shall take early and substantial action to keep well clear of other sailing vessels as described in the Collision regulations, Rules 12 and 16.

Know that the operator of a pleasure sailing craft, that has the wind on the same side and is to windward of other sailing vessels, shall take early and substantial action to keep well clear of sailing vessels which are to leeward as described in the Collision Regulations, Rules 12 and 16.

Know that the operator of a pleasure sailing craft, that has the wind on the port side and cannot determine with certainty whether other sailing vessels to windward have the wind on the port or on the starboard side, shall take early and substantial action to keep well clear of the sailing vessels as described in the collision Regulations, Rules 12 and 16.

Know that the operator of a pleasure craft shall take early and substantial action to keep well clear of vessels being overtaken as described in the Collision Regulations, Rules 13 and 16.

Know that the operator of a pleasure craft, which has other power driven vessels on his/her own starboard side and cross them so as to involve risk of collision, shall take early and substantial action to keep well clear and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessels as described in the Collision Regulations, Rules 15 and 16.

Boating and Alcohol

Drinking alcohol in a boat is no less dangerous than in a car. The effects of the sun and wind, combined with the use of alcohol, seriously distorts judgment and dulls the reflexes. Unfortunately, alcohol is a factor in a high percentage of fatal boating accidents. In December 1985, major amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada took force in regard to vessels. These amendments led to more severe police action, especially for offences committed under the influence of alcohol.

Dangerous Driving

Section 249(1)b of the Criminal Code of Canada provides:

“Everyone commits an offence who operates a vessel or any water skis, surf-board, water sled or other towed object on or over any of the internal waters of Canada or the territorial sea of Canada, in a manner that is dangerous to the public, having regard to all the circumstances, including the nature and condition of those waters or sea and the use that at the time is or might reasonably be expected to be made of those waters or sea;”

Everyone one who commits an offence under this section may be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

If the offence caused bodily harm to another person, the length of imprisonment may be up to ten years.

If the offence caused the death of another person, the person who committed the offence is liable to imprisonment for a term of up to fourteen years.

Section 250(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada also provides:

Another responsible person must be on board a vessel to keep watch on any person being towed.


The most radical change to the Criminal Code of Canada, 1985, in regard to boating concerns the operation of boats by impaired persons.

Section 253 of the Criminal Code of Canada provides:

“Every one commits an offence who operates a motor vehicle or vessel or operates or assists in the operation of an aircraft or of railway equipment or has the care or control of a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft or railway equipment, whether it is in motion or not,

  1. while the person's ability to operate the vehicle, vessel, aircraft or railway equipment is impaired by alcohol or a drug; or
  2. having consumed alcohol in such a quantity that the concentration in the person's blood exceeds eighty milligrams of alcohol in one hundred millilitres of blood.”

The Criminal Code amendments allow officers of the peace who have reasonable grounds to suspect that a boat operator has used alcohol to request that such operator take a breathalyser test, just as they would for a car driver.

Now, there is no distinction between driving a car and driving a boat if the operator is impaired; the offence is the same.  Refusal by a car driver or boat operator to take a breathalyser test is also an offence.

The sentences involved in committing the offence of driving while impaired are the same for boats or cars.  For a first offence, the minimum sentence is $600.  For a second offence, the minimum sentence is 14 days of imprisonment.  For each subsequent offence, the offender may be imprisoned for at least 90 days.

These above convictions reflect minimum sentences.  Whenever bodily harm is involved, the Court is free to impose a sentence of imprisonment of up to 10 years.  If the offence results in the death of another person, the sentence of imprisonment can be as long as imprisonment for life.

In addition to the above sentences, the Courts can prohibit the convicted person from operating a boat for at least three months.  Anyone found operating a boat while under such a suspension is liable to two years of imprisonment.

Although the Courts cannot suspend the operating license of a person found guilty of a boat operation offence, they may and must prohibit such persons from operating a boat for at least three months.

For an offence set out in the Criminal Code providing a minimum sentence of 14 days of imprisonment for a second offence, the two offences need not have been committed in the same circumstances.  In other words, if a person was guilty of driving a boat while impaired and later a vehicle, or vice versa, the second time would be considered a second offence, and the offender would spend at least fourteen days in prison.  Obviously, the same reasoning applies to any subsequent offence.

The offence of “Careless Operation of a Vessel”, has been added to the Small Vessel Regulations.  An operator who is doing any of the following could be charged:

  • traveling in a way that could adversely affect the safety of people or property considering the weather, boat traffic, hazards or potential hazards, or the number of people around the boat
  • operating a vessel in a careless manner, without consideration for other people or for the factors listed immediately above.

Others have been added to the Criminal Code of Canada:

  • operating a vessel dangerously
  • operating a vessel when impaired
  • towing water skiers improperly
  • failing to stop at the scene of an accident
  • operating an unseaworthy vessel

Here are a few myths and realities about boating and alcohol (based on the brochure “Water and Alcohol - Myths and Realities” published by the Canadian Red Cross Society).

Myths Reality
A few beers can’t hurt Even in small amounts, alcohol affects coordination and judgment A bottle of beer, a glass of wine or a drink of liquor all produce the same effect.
Most drownings result from swimming More than 60% of drownings occur after the victim accidentally falls off a dock, shoreline or vessel into the water. Autopsies show that more than one-third of the victims of such falls (mostly men) were impaired by alcohol at the time of the accident.
Drinking alcohol while operating a boat is not a serious offence Operating a boat while intoxicated is just as dangerous as operating a car. The maritime police are equipped with breathalyser. If the results are positive, the police may lay charges.
There’s no harm in drinking alcohol on the beach before swimming Alcohol affects judgment The person drinking can easily overestimate their abilities or misjudge a risk they would not take under normal circumstances. Furthermore, it is illegal to drink in public places, such as a beach or a dock.
People who stand up in a boat rarely fall overboard More than one-half of boating accidents occur when occupants are standing. Given that alcohol affects balance, anyone who stands up in a boat after drinking alcohol is more likely to fall overboard. Drinking alcohol also increases urination.

Blood-Alcohol Levels

The following chart allows a calculation of when it becomes dangerous to drive after drinking alcohol.  The chart was developed by the Toronto Police Department for car drivers, but it also applies to persons operating vessels.

The Criminal Code of Canada reports the legal limit for alcohol as 80 milligrams of ethyl alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (80 mg%). This is also often expressed as 0.08 grams of ethyl alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.


  • Find the column that corresponds to the number of drinks consumed
  • Locate the number matching the weight of the person
  • The number entered in the box where 1 and 2 meet shows the blood-alcohol concentrations (BAC) in grams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood

Weight (lbs) 1 drink 2 drinks 3 drinks 4 drinks 5 drinks 6 drinks
100 0.043 0.087 0.130 0.174 0.217 0.267
125 0.034 0.069 0.103 0.139 0.173 0.209
150 0.029 0.058 0.087 0.116 0.145 0.174
175 0.025 0.050 0.075 0.100 0.125 0.150
200 0.022 0.043 0.065 0.087 0.108 0.130
225 0.019 0.039 0.058 0.078 0.097 0.117

Note: One drink = 1.5 oz of liquor (40% alcohol) = 5 oz. of table wine (10-14% alcohol)  = 12 oz of regular beer (5% alcohol).

Attention: The time elapsed since drinking and other factors can affect the data in the chart.   For women, blood/alcohol concentrations are higher than specified in the chart.

The Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol has the same effect on a boat operator as a car driver.  However, boating involves certain specific factors. Here are a few examples:


Most people who die in a boating accident fall out of a vessel and not necessarily because it capsizes.

Balance is one of the first faculties impaired by the very first drink of alcohol or the first beer.   It affects the body quickly, and obviously, a fishing boat roughly 3.5 meters in length is much less stable than solid ground.


As the blood-alcohol level rises, people are less and less capable of coordinating their movements and reflexes.  An intoxicated person will find it very difficult to swim or grab onto a lifebouy, regardless of their ability when sober.  Moreover, alcohol also affects vision.

Judgment and Sense of Risk

Most people lose their normal reasoning ability after just a few drinks.  Under the influence of alcohol, the people may be inclined to take risks.


Contrary to popular belief, two or three “stiff drinks” do not warm up a cold person.  On the contrary, alcohol causes the blood to rise to the surface of the skin, giving the impression of warmth, although body heat quickly dissipates into the air or water.  Cold water is dangerous enough without alcohol  reducing  survival time even more.

Body Heat Regulation

The term “human body heat regulation” pertains to the mechanism that maintains an even body temperature.  Physical activity, on land or in the water, increases the body’s glucose level (blood sugar). Glucose, which carries energy to the muscles, is needed to produce heat when we exercise.  But alcohol interferes with the liver’s ability to produce glucose.  Drinking alcohol and engaging in strenuous exercise at the same time can reduce glucose levels (hypoglycemia) and make a person confused and weak, and interferes with the body’s heat regulation.  Shivering, a reflex by which the muscles produce heat, is impeded by alcohol.  Alcohol causes the blood vessels in the skin to dilate (expand), thus increasing the amount of heat that leaves the blood and enters the air.  Cold water is also more effective than cold air in removing body heat.  For these reasons, high levels of alcohol in the blood diminish the body’s ability to produce heat as quickly as it is lost in cold water, and the body temperature can therefore fall.

A pleasure craft operator should always check weather forecast information before heading out to avoid putting the craft and persons on board at risk.

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