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Rules of the road at sea

If you're out enjoying the region's lakes, rivers and harbours, make sure you know the navigation and safety rules. 

It is the skippers responsibility to ensure the safety of the craft and crew on board. This includes knowing and understanding the rules of the road at sea. If you have an accident, ignorance of the rules set by the Navigation Safety Bylaw is not accepted as an excuse.

rules of the sea

Look out

You must keep a good look out at all times. Stay focused and keep alert for other boats, swimmers, paddle craft, divers, hazards and obstacles around you. Use your sight, hearing and binoculars. Listen out to your marine radio and regularly check your charts, GPS and radar.


You must travel at a safe speed at all times. Take into account:

  • The manoeuvrability of your craft
  • Visibility
  • Wind and sea state
  • How busy it is on the water around you
  • Other water users
  • Hazards in the area
  • The depth of water

Remember the 5 knot rule.

When two boats meet - the collision prevention rules

If you have identified a risk of collision, you must take action to avoid it. Your action must be taken in good times, be substantial, be clearly visible to other vessels and not result in your vessel coming into close quarters with another vessel. 

Part 22 of the Martime Rules gives effect to the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972, to which New Zealand is party

The rules differ according to the type of vessel you are on and the type of vessel you are meeting.

Who gives way?

Overtaking - power boats and sail boats

All boats (sail or power) overtaking from astern are responsible for keeping clear until finally past the boat being overtaken. Always assume that the boat in front may not be aware of your presence or intentions.

Over taking boats icon 

When power meets power

Powerboats meeting head on must each alter their course to starboard to pass on the port side of each other. Keep Right.

 Over taking power boats

Crossing situation

When powerboats converge at an angle (crossing), the boat having the other to starboard (right) gives way. As on the road, give way to your right. 

Crossing situation icon 

When sail meets sail

When the wind is coming from different sides: The boat with the wind on its port (left) side must give way. When both vessels have the wind on the same side: The upwind boat (windward) must give way.

Powerboats, unless being overtaken, must give way to vessels under sail!

In channels

Every boat must keep to the starboard side of any channel. Smaller vessels must keep out of the way of larger vessels which maybe restricted by the channel.

The manoeuvring signals 

Sounds can be used to indicate what a vessel is about to do. You should understand these:

One short blast: "I am turning to starboard"

Two short blasts: "I am turning to port"

Three short blasts: "My engines are going astern" - this does not necessarily mean my craft is going backwards

Five or more short blasts: "I don't understand your intentions" - perhaps better known as "What on earth are you doing?" 

Exclusion Zones

The current Exclusion Zones are detailed here.