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Sailing Rules and Safety

Like automobiles, or other modes of transportation, sailboats and sailors have their own rules to follow to provide a safe and enjoyable environment. Many of the rules discussed below hold true for both large and small sailboats. As a disclaimer, consider the information below to be "unofficial", although it has been taken from official sources. Because rules and laws may change, please consult the Michigan SOS, Michigan DNR, and US Coast Guard websites for the latest official information.

Rights of Way

All boat operators bear the responsibility to operate their craft in a reasonable and safe manner under any given conditions and to avoid damage or injury to others. That being said, there are some basic traffic rules for sailboats to follow.

Basic rule - Given an encounter between two watercraft, the least maneuverable boat should have the right of way. A likely interaction between watercraft in recrational waters is between a powerboat and a sailboat. In nearly all cases, the sailboat (under sail) is the least maneuverable and thus has the right of way. That does not mean, however, that it is advisable to stare down a powerboat doing 40 mph. Although the powerboat is supposed to steer clear, it is the responsibility of the skipper of the sailboat to take action if the powerboat does not.

What about when two sailboats meet? In this case it depends on the point of sail and the relative location of the two boats. If two sailboats are on a collision course (traveling on opposite tacks), the boat on the starboard tack has the right of way. If the two sailboats are on the same tack, then the leeward (downwind) boat has the right of way. If one sailboat is overtaking another on the same tack, then the foward boat (to be passed) has the right of way. Incidentally this is also true if a sailboat is passing a motor boat.

Use the table below to see if you know the basic traffic rules. In the hypothetical encounters below, which boat is the right of way (also known as "stand on") boat?

Boat 1 Boat 2
Powerboat Sailboat (under sail)
Sailboat (Port tack) Sailboat (Starboard tack)
Personal Watercraft Sailboat (under sail)
 Sailboat  Commerical fishing boat
(trolling nets)
 Sailboat  Barge
 Sailboat  Great lakes freighter
 Sailboat Rowboat
  Sailboat (Windward) Sailboat (Leeward)
                          Sailboat (under power)                        Sailboat (under sail)

Boat #2 is the stand on (right of way) boat in all the above cases.

Rights of Way (Nighttime Navigation)

The same Right of Way rules apply at night, as in daytime, but how can you determine boat type and speed at night? All sailboats must display some form of navigation lights if sailing at night, however the type and configuration will depend on the length of the boat, and whether a motor is being used. There are four basic types of lights to be used:

1. A red light (sidelight) on the port bow
2. A green light (sidelight) on the starboard bow
3. A white stern light (only visible from behind)
4. A white mast light (elevated and aimed forward) - this seperate light is only required if your sailboat has a motor and will be operating under motor at night

Lights 1 and 2 can be combined into one - two color bowlight.

Light display for a sailboat under sail

Alternative light display for a sailboat under sail

Alternative light display for a small sailboat under sail

Light display for a sailboat under power

In nighttime conditions or in conditions of poor visibility, A powerboat or sailboat under power should display: Port-Red light, Starboard-Green light, White mast-light and a White stern-light (some powerboats less than 26' in length may display and all-round stern light in lieu of seperate mast and stern lights).

A sailboat (26' in length or longer) under sail displays: Port-Red light, Starboard-Green light, and a White stern-light (note that no mast-light or all-round stern light is used). Sailboats < 26' in length should display the same lighting pattern. However, if this is not possible, illuminate the sail with white flashlight/lantern.

A powerboat or sailboat at anchor displays only a white stern light or all around white light (the port/red, starboard/green, and mast lights are turned off.

Safety Equipment

The type of safety equipment which is required to be carried on a sailboat will depend on the length of the boat, the waters in which it will be sailed, and whether the boat is equipped with an engine. A basic list of equipment (primarily for dinghies) is found on the SailMichigan Sailing Equipment page. A good reference for larger boats is the Vessel Safety Check Web resource provided by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. You can perform your own vessel safety check using their prompts and the following safety check form.


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