Understanding the right of way for a watercraft is a crucial part of staying safe on the water. Unfortunately, many boaters do not really know who has the right of way at any given moment. They simply try to adjust as things happen and hope they can avoid an accident. This leads to confusion, mistakes and collisions.

To help you get started, here are three important rules. Please keep in mind that this is not all you need to know, but just a good base of knowledge to begin with.

First, the lead boat always has the right of way. If you come up on the stern of another craft, you have to give way to them. You are allowed to pass, but they never have to alter their course or speed to accommodate you.

Second, if another craft is going to cross your line of travel and they are on the port (left) side, you also have the right of way. You don’t have to change your direction or your speed at all. It’s their job to plot a course that takes them safely behind or in front of your boat.

Finally, if that other craft is on the right (starboard) side of your boat, that’s when they have the right of way. They can maintain their course, and you need to change yours. It may be a change of just a few degrees, but you have to pick a path to go by safely.

Other boaters don’t always know these rules. If they cause an accident and you get injured, you need to know if you have a right to financial compensation.