Play by the Rules

Published on November 8th, 2021

When competitive sailing encounters recreational powerboating, bad things can happen. The thrill of speed impacts common sense, made worse when those creating waves don’t know their impact. If you haven’t experienced a frightening encounter, hang in there… you will. Pat Mundus shares her story:


Sailing outbound from my mooring field on a sailboat without an engine requires passage through a short bottleneck channel with a sandbar to port. Recently, as I sized up the narrow part of the channel, I observed a motorboat inbound, farther out. It appeared that he had slowed, waiting for me to come through.

A light breeze was blowing straight in the cut, dictating I steer as close to the wind as possible to clear the bar. This limited maneuverability is exactly the reason a vessel under sail alone has the right of way over a power-driven vessel, according to the Rules of the Road.

Suddenly, the inbound motorboat throttled up, rushed across my bow from right to left and then steered hard to port toward us, asserting his position port-to-port between the sandbar and my boat. Perhaps in his view, he wanted to force a narrow channel passing situation (Rule 9).

“You aren’t allowed to sail through here,” he yelled to me. “Turn on your engine!”

I communicated my stand-on responsibilities and clearly claimed my right of way with two sentences. “Sorry, I have no engine,” I replied. “I’m sailing here and have to hold my course until we clear the bar.”

I couldn’t turn away to starboard because of the wind direction—we would have lost steerageway. He muscled through anyway, passing within feet of us and the sandbar. His actions put him in a tight spot and reduced safe passing distance.

Many boaters don’t understand how a sailboat maneuvers on the wind and that’s understandable. But the rules offer a basic acknowledgement of a sailboat’s limitations, stating the need to slow or stop if necessary. This situation could have been prevented if the powerboat simply held his position for another minute until we cleared the bar. – Full report

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