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Safe speed | Proper lookout | Bow riding is illegal | Giving way | Sailing vessels and sailboards | Distance off | Mooring areas | Diving activities | Dredges | Vehicular ferries | Commercial fishing vessels


Know the rules

All masters must be aware of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. A summary of these rules is given in this section.

Safe speed

All vessels must travel at a safe speed at all times.

A safe speed cannot be expressed as a maximum or minimum number of knots because it varies with circumstances and conditions. The master (skipper) must continually assess the safety of the vessel’s speed.

A safe speed is one at which the vessel can be stopped in time to avoid any danger which arises suddenly. In judging a safe speed the master must consider a number of issues including:

Visibility – drive slowly in rain, fog, mist, smoke or glare.

Special caution is required at night because many potential hazards may not be lit or may not be easily seen. Background shore lighting may confuse you.

Other vessels – slow down on busy waterways and when near moored or anchored vessels, working vessels showing special signals and large vessels which have difficulties in manoeuvring.

Navigation hazards – slow down in shallow areas or in unfamiliar waterways.

Water depth can vary and change frequently. Not all hazards may be marked or lit and signs, buoys, marks or lights may have shifted or been vandalised.

Wind, waves and currents – may adversely affect the manoeuvrability of a vessel.

Manoeuvrability of the vessel – stopping and turning ability depends on the speed travelled, wind and current and the boat’s design (such as hull shape, engine and propeller type and number).

If your vessel does not have a speedometer, you must be able to determine if you are exceeding a local speed limit. For example, if your boat is planing in a restricted speed zone it is likely that you are exceeding the speed limit, so slow down.

Safe speed diagram


Proper lookout

Keep a proper lookoutA good lookout must be kept by sight and hearing.

The master must be fully aware of the boating environment, especially in bad weather, restricted visibility or darkness. Don’t forget to look all around – even behind you.

Special care should be taken when operating your boat in areas where high speed vessels operate, such as Sydney Harbour. The situation can become dangerous very quickly due to rapid closing speeds, even if your vessel is travelling slowly.

For example a vessel going at 20 knots will cover more than 100 metres in less than 10 seconds and the speed of your boat may further decrease your time to react to avoid a collision.

Don’t confuse the lookout duties of the master with those of the observer when the boat is towing a person on skis, tubes, etc.

The master is responsible at all times for keeping a lookout for dangers.


Bow riding is illegal

Bow riding means extending any part of your body outside the perimeter of a vessel that is underway.

Note NOTE: The offence relating to bow riding relates to both the operator of a power-driven vessel and the person on board the vessel who extends any part of their body outside the perimeter of the vessel.


On the spot fine

Giving way

Keep to the rightThe master must continuously assess the risk of collision with other vessels.
Power vessels must give way to:

  • Sailing vessels.
  • Vessels approaching head on (by altering course to starboard).
  • Vessels approaching from the right (starboard) hand side (ie, crossing).
  • Vessels displaying the special lights and signals shown in this chapter.
  • Large vessels restricted in their manoeuvrability.
  • Any vessel being overtaken.
  • Vessels engaged in fishing activities and showing appropriate signals.

A vessel drifting is deemed to be underway and has no special right of way. It is required to comply with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

Do not create a dangerous situation by forcing your right of way. Always keep a safe distance off other vessels so the vessel can be stopped or manoeuvred to avoid any sudden danger.

The faster the speed, the greater the safe distance must be.

When altering course make your intentions clear to others as early as possible.

Note NOTE: In a collision, all masters involved can be held responsible even if the give-way vessel does not give way, because all masters are required to exercise caution and take avoiding action if the other vessel does not.

Sound signals

Special sound signals exist for vessels to indicate their manoeuvring intentions when they are in sight of one another.

1 short blast

I am altering course to starboard (the right).

2 short blasts

I am altering course to port (the left).

3 short blasts

I am operating engines astern
(stopping/slowing or reversing).

5 short blasts

I am unsure of your intentions and I doubt whether you are taking sufficient action to avoid collision.

Power gives way to sail

A power driven vessel must give way to a sailing vessel unless the sailing vessel is in the process of overtaking it.

Power gives way to sail - diagram Power gives way to sail - diagram


Power driven vessels meeting head on

When two power driven vessels meet head on, each must alter course to starboard (to the right) and pass at a safe distance.

Vessels meeting head on - diagram Vessels meeting head on - diagram

Power driven vessels crossing

In crossing situations, give way to the right.

Power vessels crossing - diagram1 Power vessels crossing - diagram2

Action to avoid collision

The give-way vessel must avoid a collision by changing course substantially, by slowing down, or stopping and allowing the vessel which has right of way to pass clear ahead. This must be done as early as possible.

Note NOTE: The master of the vessel which has right of way must maintain a lookout, maintain course and speed and be prepared to take action to avoid a collision if necessary.

Vessels overtaking

Any vessel (including a sailing boat) which is overtaking another vessel must keep well clear of the vessel being overtaken.

You can overtake another vessel on either side but only when it is safe and you must stay well clear.

In narrow channels you must be particularly careful when overtaking.

In all instances, make sure you do not cut in front of the vessel you have overtaken.

Vessels overtaking - diagram1 Vessels overtaking - diagram2

Sailing vessels and sailboards

When two sailing vessels have wind on different sides, the vessel with wind on the port side gives way. In the following scenarios, the red vessel gives way.

Sailing vessels right of way - diagram1 Sailing vessels right of way - diagram2

When both craft have wind on the same side, the vessel which is to windward shall keep out of the way of the vessel which is to leeward.

Sailing vessels right of way - diagram3 Sailing vessels right of way - diagram4

Note NOTE: If a collision appears inevitable, the skipper of each vessel must take proper action to avert the collision.

Distance off

When driving a vessel at a speed of 10 knots or more or towing a person you must keep the vessel and the person being towed a minimum distance of:

  • 30 metres from power-driven vessels, any moored vessel, land and structures including jetties, bridges, moorings and navigation markers) or, if that is not possible, a safe distance.
  • 60 metres from persons or non-powered vessels (sailing and passive) that are underway or if that is not possible, a safe distance.
  • 100 metres from a dredge or work barge, if you are travelling faster than 4 knots.
  • A safe distance from any vessel towing a person.

Diagram - Distance Off

Diagram - Distance Off

Safe distance

A safe distance between a vessel and a person or thing (including another vessel) is a distance that will ensure that the vessel will not cause danger or injury to the person or damage to the thing, having regard to all relevant safety factors including weather conditions at the time, visibility, speed of
the vessel and obstructions to navigation that are present.

It should be noted that where a skipper is issued a penalty for breaching the distance off requirements referred to above and claims that even though this distance off was breached, the distance off was a ‘safe distance’, the onus is on the skipper to prove this in court.

Designated swimming areas

Remember the same rules apply for PWC as other vessels operating near surf zones/swimming areas.

A designated swimming area in a surf zone is defined as the area extending 500 metres out from shore between surf patrol flags or signs.

In all other areas a swimming area is defined as the area extending 60 metres out from shore between signs for swimmers.

A person must not operate a power-driven vessel within 60 metres of a swimming area and the flags or signs marking such zones unless it is a vessel operated by Surf Life Saving NSW or Council lifeguards or unless permitted to do so by a sign.

Designated swimming area - diagram1 Designated swimming area - diagram2

Mooring areas

On many waterways in NSW, areas are set aside for the mooring of vessels. These vessels are not required to be lit at night and the masters of other vessels must be aware of the location of such moorings.

Check local maps or charts, or contact your local Roads and Maritime Services centre for details of mooring areas. When navigating near, in or through a mooring area:

  • Drive slowly and keep wash to a minimum.
  • Keep a lookout for people in the water, small dinghies, and trailing ropes.
  • When travelling at 10 knots or more you must stay at least 30m from any moored vessel.

Diving activities

Diving activities - diagramThe diver’s flag – white and blue no less than 400mm x 400mm in size and rigid – must be shown when people are engaged in diving or snorkelling activities from a vessel. It is to be flown in a vertical position 1m above the superstructure and visible through 360°. If this flag is flown off a float/buoy, it must be at least 2m above the water level. It is recommended that this flag be shown when diving/snorkelling from shore.

As divers may not always be in close proximity, it is important that as soon as you see a dive flag you slow down, keep well clear and keep a good lookout.

If you are within speaking distance of the dive master, get their instructions as to a safe direction to travel to avoid any possible encounters. If there is no dive master about then it’s your responsibility to keep a good lookout at all times for any divers above and below the surface and then determine a safe distance.

If you see a snorkeller in the water or their float/flag, remember to remain a safe distance.

If you are travelling at a speed of 10 knots or more, keep a minimum of 60 metres from persons in the water.

When you see a diver’s flag slow down, keep well clear and keep a lookout.


When driving your vessel you must not create wash that may damage or unreasonably impact on a dredge.

Dredge signals - diagram1 Dredge signals - diagram2

Vehicular ferries

In some areas vehicular ferries drag themselves across channels using wires or chains. Because these wires/chains are often below the water you may not see the danger.

You must slow down to 4 knots or less when within 100 metres of the wires or chains of a vehicular ferry when it is underway and disengage power when crossing the wires or chains.

Always pass astern of the ferry. Preferably wait until it has reached the shore to avoid becoming entangled in the wires.

A vehicular ferry underway will display an all-round flashing light. You should give way, as it is significantly restricted in its ability to manoeuvre.

Vehicular ferries - diagram1 Vehicular ferries - diagram2

Commercial fishing vessels

Licensed fishing vessels (LFB) display special shapes and lights when their manoeuvrability is restricted by their fishing apparatus.

You should keep clear of these vessels when you see such shapes or lights or notice they are working with nets and lines.

(Contact your local Fisheries office for more details about the rights of commercial fishing vessels).

Commercial fishing vessels - signals diagram