Doug King | VOLUME 32, ISSUE 5

A little courtesy and observing general boating etiquette go a long way to making everyone’s time on the water pleasant and safe.

The captain goes down with the ship. This is probably the best-known of the unwritten rules of the sea. It is all about the skipper being responsible for those onboard and their responsibility to save them in an emergency.

In our Waterwise section, you’ll often read about formal rules and legislation, and how they apply to boating and affect boat operators in a practical sense. There are, however, many unwritten rules – like ‘going down with the ship’ – that are just as important. They’re known as boating etiquette and they help make boating safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

Boating etiquette starts before you get on the water.

For example, have you ever waited and waited … and waited at the boat ramp while someone takes a number of attempts to reverse down to the water, or prepares their boat on the ramp? It is not good form and it’s frustrating for those waiting. Good etiquette would be to prepare your boat for launch away from the ramp, so all that’s left to do is to uncouple the winch strap. And those who aren’t yet competent at reversing should put in some practice before heading to the ramp – it’ll save embarrassment, time and hot tempers for those waiting in line. Oh, and remember to take turns at launching and retrieving – as a general rule, one boat is launched, and one boat is retrieved.


Marinas also have some unwritten rules. Most are common sense and may seem minor, but they do make a difference. For example, never board a boat without first gaining permission from the owner, even if you are a friend. This stems from the belief that, for the time being, the boat is the owner’s home – it’s the same reason why we knock on someone’s front door before walking in. And you may be asked to remove your shoes before boarding – the owners will have a reason for it, and it is good etiquette to respect the request. On larger boats, it’s not good manners to wander around uninvited. Once given free rein, let the skipper know if you go below or out of sight. Apart from being courteous, it can be a safety issue.

Entertaining onboard is one of boating’s great pleasures, but clean up straight away. Food left out attracts insects, birds and vermin that are not welcome around marinas (or on your boat). And if you are entertaining, consider the level of your music – some neighbours may not share your taste in music, or may just want some quiet time.

Equipment, tools, ropes, bags and so on should never be left on docks or walkways. They create a trip hazard and can obstruct those trying to move carts and other supplies down the dock. In the same vein, ensure all the boat’s lines, cords and hoses are neatly stored, as these can be tripping hazards, especially at night.

A courteous practice for boats moored bow first in the pen is to keep the bow and anchor from overhanging walkways and docks if possible, for obvious reasons.

At fuel or loading docks, move on as soon as you have finished your business and don’t overstay time limits without the marina manager’s permission.

Avoid interfering with other boat’s lines. If it is necessary, though, first ask permission if the owner is about. While cleating off is a popular way to secure a boat, consider ‘dipping the eye’ when a number of boats are using the same cleat or bollard. This technique allows you to let boats go without having to disturb other mooring lines – simply pass the loop (eye) of your line up from below through the eye of the other boat’s line(s), then drop it over the bollard or cleat.

And on a final marina note, think about how noise and exhaust smoke from a running generator may affect others, and remember to shut off all electronic equipment, including the radio, when you leave your boat.


On the water, there are any number of unwritten laws or codes that show consideration for other water users.

Consider, for instance, powerboats encountering sailboats – it may take longer than you’d expect for a sailboat to change course or, quite often, they may change course suddenly. In addition to the requirement for power to give way to sail, give them a wide berth as well.

If you encounter a yacht race or racing fleet, keep well clear and pass behind if possible. It shows a real lack of seamanship to pass through a racing fleet and your wake could influence the outcome of the race. Powerboat wakes are troublesome for sailboats and having to ride out a large wake can slow down or stop a sailboat by ‘shaking’ the wind out of the sails.

Towed sports, such as wakeboarding and waterskiing, have formal rules for safety that are specified by legislation, but there are other things that can be done to show common sense and good manners. Check out the area you are operating in for any local or informal rules – for example, a common direction of travel is usually signposted, so check it out first.

Some other things to avoid include following directly behind the boat, skier or boarder in front. If the rider falls, they are right in your line. Instead, follow off to one side at a safe distance. Skiers or boarders who take a fall in a busy area should get their ski or board off and hold it up high vertically to indicate their position to other boaters. This also signals to others that your tow boat is turning to pick you up.

It goes without saying that towed sports must stay well clear of other boats. While safety distances apply under the law, it isn’t too well understood that those distances apply to riders as well. One of the funniest memories of my time in the Water Police was when in uniform, but in an unmarked boat, my partner and I were travelling at slow speed up a fairly wide channel. We watched as a boat towing a skier came up from behind. The boat was at a safe distance, but the skier, on a slalom cut out, sprayed a great arc of water over us. The look on his face as he realised who we were was priceless. He dropped the rope and surrendered immediately. Despite the potential danger of his actions, we felt the humiliation in front of his mates and his remorseful attitude were punishment enough and gave him a formal written warning.

Keep well clear around boats that are fishing. Coming close may disturb or break up burley trails put out by the fishos and, if a boat is trolling, you may snag the lines. Fishos intending to drift fish should have a look whether other boats about doing the same – if there are, fall in line with them. And try not to drive through areas where birds are working on the water as this indicates fish activity, and scaring them when you could have gone around them upsets everyone.


Finding a peaceful inlet or bay to drop the anchor or moor the houseboat is something all boaters enjoy. Whether you’re staying just a few hours or overnight, there are well-accepted guidelines that should be followed.

If anchoring, don’t get too close to other boats. There are two things to think about: the first is the swinging circle when your boat moves with wind or tide. As a rule of thumb, your boat’s swing radius will be about half the distance of your anchor line paid out, plus the boat’s freeboard and length added together. Leave plenty of room, so things don’t go bump in the night.

The second thing to consider is just plain neighbourly. Again, think of your boat as a temporary home – not everyone wants to have close neighbours, so show respect and leave some space if possible.

Sound travels long distances over water, so keep the noise and music to a low level and stop at a reasonable hour. At the same time, if overnighting, switch over the house batteries to avoid running generators all night. Do a quick walk around to check that potential noise makers are secured, such as loose halyards on yachts or tenders that rub or knock against the side of your boat.

Boat wash and wake is always a problem, and one that’s easily forgotten as it is behind you. The amount of wake generated by boats varies, so be familiar with your wake profile. With kayaks, canoes and riverbank fishermen common on our waterways, your wake can be bothersome at least and, at worst, dangerous … not to mention the chaos it can cause to moored and anchored boats.

At my local marina, boats often come in pulling a large wake. I’m sure their GPS indicates low speed, but the hull is still squatting at the stern. Deep-vee boats and cruisers can drag large amounts of water like this if they’re not taken off the plane completely. When slowing down, reduce power right back to idle, then into neutral. Allow the hull to settle in the water – you should notice the bow dipping as the hull levels. You are then good to increase revs a little without causing a large wash.

Displaying flags on boats has its own etiquette. The Australian Red Ensign is simply a red version of the Australian flag. At sea, it is the only flag allowed for merchant ships registered in Australia. Pleasurecraft, however, may fly either the Red Ensign or the blue Australian flag. If you are a member of a club with a royal warrant, special rules apply to displaying flags and club burgees. If uncertain what the custom is, consult with the club’s flag officer.

On a final note – while not strictly etiquette, there are two traditions that are worth mentioning: boat names, and New Year’s Eve.

Formal ceremonies exist for boat naming and renaming events and it is considered bad luck if you don’t follow them. One of those rules is that boats should always be christened with champagne … not a bad rule. And as for celebrating New Year’s Eve aboard a boat – tradition has it that the youngest person aboard should ring in or count down the New Year.

Most on-water etiquette and unwritten rules relate to situational awareness, common sense and courtesy. While the captain may no longer be expected to go down with the ship, following the rules while applying the accepted etiquette will ensure everyone will have a better time on the water.


• A technique used when mooring where another vessel is already tied up

• Avoids putting your line on top of the line already there

• ‘Dip the eye’ by bringing the loop of your line through the eye of the first line and then over the fixture.

How To