Rules of the road

I paddle on the intra coastal in South Fl, where it is about 150-200 yards wide.

I paddle early Sunday morning when there is less boat traffic.

Do the same rules apply that they do on the road where the paddler should always paddle on the right?


Robert G


Yes, this applies virtually everywhere.
The Schuylkill River in Philadelphia is an example of a rare exception. Because of the heavy rowing traffic and the dogleg race course, we had to proceed on the left side of the river.

rules of the road
The Coast Guard has a brochure for recreational boaters that explains the rules pretty well; your local Coast Guard Auxiliary would probably be delighted to be asked. From memory, here are some of the rules, mainly to show that it’s more complicated than staying on the right: Staying on the right is the rule only when no other rules apply. You have to yield to sailboats (when they’re actually under sail). You have to yield to vessels that don’t maneuver easily or that need to stay in certain parts of the waters (like the channel). When you’re being overtaken, you technically have the right-of-way, but do you really want to push the point? An explicit part of the rules is that you have to act to avoid a collision or to help other people, if possible, even if you have a “right” to be doing what you’re doing.

I try to follow these unwritten rules, too: The Law of Making Your Intentions Clear, the Law of Not Causing Unnecessary Headaches, and the Law of Gross Tonnage. Since paddlers are largely invisible, and small, and slow, the rules usually boil down to my spending nearly all my time where other boaters don’t want to be, plus yielding to them whenever I have to be on their turf.

– Mark

I f you have time

– Last Updated: Jun-13-07 11:11 PM EST –

and have the book, or are near a library, a good read is the very large and tedious "Chapman Piloting, Seamanship And Smallboat Handling" by Elbert S. Maloney. It's still the last word on maritime behavoir and international boating rules. Lots of good info but some may be outdated by now. Lot of classic, and still valid information.

Thanks Mark!
Gosh you approached that well.

Between channel markers (in the channel) yes - definitely observe traffic rules.

The rest is not “official”, just observations from same/similar areas of ICW.

Most all the ICW has room off to either side that’s not in the channel, often shallower, etc. As a paddler you’ll often have this “bike lane” or “sidewalk” area all to yourself - save very small craft and boats entering ICW from side canals.

When off to the side -which is most of the time for me in ICW out of simple practicality/courtesy - I still mostly keep right (like a “bike lane”), but when you’re out of the channel it’s no longer “the road” - and you’re not likely to bother anyone going either way. There are some places I’ll go opposite in order to be in better position to cross channels, port, etc. Better meaning more out of the way more of the time.

I see a lot of paddlers going counter so they can see the closest traffic better and take the wakes more head on (“sidewalk”). For paddlers that feel the need to do so (lower comfort around boats, wakes, etc.) - even if not ideally correct - it’s probably safer for all - as long as they are not in anyone’s way.

The ones that drive me nuts can’t even hold course, and end up all over the place. Motor folks must love 'em too.

Hey Salty,
Do you believe it? Now there’s three of us that understand “The Rules”.

Way to go Mark.

g2d: ??
Did you row for…let me guess…Penn?

I went out for the Drexel (IT in those days)8’s as a way to get on the water, but quickly lost interest due to my obnoxious individualism. That, and I was in ROTC which conflicted time-wise.


Rules of the Road
Every boater should learn and understand the Rules of the Road.

Power driven vessels give way to sail and oar powered (a sailboat under power is a power driven vessel). Those give way to vessels engaged in fishing, those restricted in ability to maneuver and those not under command (in that order). So, if a power boat is in a narrow channel, restricted in its ability to maneuver, you must give it the right of way.

Of course, the “rules” are a little more complicated than that and contain rules for passing and overtaking other vessels, etc. Keeping to the right (passing port to port side) is a general rule, but it does not mean that you should not paddle down the left side of a river.

To learn more rules:

for paddlers
the law of tonnage is to me the most vital law, because we have the least tons, we should stay out of everyone else’s way.

I learned the rules of the road through the Coast Guard Auxiliary courses. I highly recommend them.

But there are two kinds of rules. (A) The official rules and (B) the rules that make sense.

Bottom line, here are the rules that I use:

  1. Stay out of the way of other boats.

  2. Stay out of the channel.

  3. Stay out of the way of other boats.

    These work well for me, paticularly #s 1 and 3.

In busy shipping lanes
one would be best to keep the f#@k out of the way. I don’t want it written on my tombstone,

“I had the right of way” ! My old Portuguese fishing buddy nd I used to fish for halibut and sand bass in the shipping channel right in front of the submarine base in San Diego harbor. We tried to stay near the edge of the channel but you know how it goes, sometimes a guy may drift a little bit. When you here that big horn blow you better scram ! Those big Navy destroyers and cruisers can turn or stop on a dime it seems. Not so with a big A.C.C.

Also It’s real scary when a sub surfaces close by. Holy smokes who has the right of way when the rising sub can’t be seen until it’s too late !

Good thread
It’s nice to hear fellow paddlers speak about respect for other users and aknowledging that we are not “special” cuz we’re paddlers. No where in the Rules does it say kayakers get special rights. We are just another vessel, albeit human powered and slow. Being so doesn’t give us special rights. I have held a Masters (Captains) license for quite a few years now. I remember how confusing some of the Rules portions of the exams could be given all the subtleties. I aced the exam, after days of study, and share that only to illustrate that this stuff can be complex between International and Inland, and local water rules. It’s up to any Mariner to learn what applies to local waters.

I was in graduate school at Penn, and
sculled out of Vesper. That was 65-67, when I finally admitted I didn’t have it as a sculler and sold my boat. I lived at 34th and Race, and so was pretty familiar with the Drexel campus.

rules of the road
1. Assume the other craft can not see you.

1a. Assume the other craft is trying to hit you

Power boaters are the worse
You really have to watch these people. They are, as a group, drunk and discourtious. Most don’t know the rules of the road. I say this as the owner of a power boat. However, i also own a sailboat, several canoes and kayaks. I know where of I speak, or how ever that saying goes.

I’ve sailed and kayaked for over 20 years. For years i’ve had to deal with 40 foot sportfishers throwing 5 foot wakes while passing 20 feet from me. Nice huh? Actually it’s fun riding the wakes, but it’s a totally discourtious act on powerboaters part. And they know it, and they know we are powerless to do anything about it.

Well, not quite so powerless. One of the major powerboat marinas in my area has a 5mph speed limit on the gravel roads running through it. In the early evening all the boaters gather around BBQs on the docks behind their boats. As wrong as it was I couldn’t help myself. One day I went over to the marina in my Jeep Grand Cherokee and ran up and down the little gravel at 40mph raising a dust cloud that had to be washed off the Jeep later. Visibility was cut to zero behind the Jeep. Lots of people with raised fists screaming at me to slow down. “Here you go, have a little gravel dust with that Sea Bass.” Wrong, yes, but not dangerous and very satisfying. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

I Love it!!!

Channel’s Crossing
I’m often in the harbor at Solomons MD where the water has less texture vs the Bay. If I am on the right of the channel and a boat wants to make a left into it’s dock cutting me off, officially I have the right of way, right?

Two channels cross as I exit the harbor, one is the main route, the other a lesser route, do you yield to the boat on the right (like at a 4 way stop where two cars arrive simmultaneously)?

What about in wide open water where your paths are likely to cross, but no one is in a channel, who yields?

Of course might is ultimately right, but I am a little pig headed and similar to when I rode a bike I think that asserting your position actually reduces conflict and misunderstanding, specially if it is in accordance with generally recognized rules of the road.

Also, I am usually at or above the posted speed limit in the harbor, so I’m not in the way or slowing someone down. DNR police and CG auxilliary are around, kind of want a ticket but they never oblige, just get a cheery wave.

Your thoughts please.


I agree with your notion that you should maintain course and speed if the stand on vessel. Without knowing exactly the curcumstances of your question and all that’s involved it’s tough to comment.

It is true that many power boaters are clueless, as are kayakers. Put the two together and there is a problem. Just as kayakers can be rude about power boaters, so can it go the other way around!

I’d encourage you to follow the link someone posted above and review the Rules. If you retain 10% of it and follow Rule #1 you’ll be fine.

For me a lot of these discussions are odd, as I live in a quieter part of the world and deal mostly with professional mariners or commercial fisherman etc. I don’t hang out on lakes, or big rivers with a ton of recreational boaters. I’d probably freak out.