Know the rules

All masters must be aware of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea which are adopted in NSW and modified through the Marine Safety Regulation 2016. 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
  • Night - 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.

10 knots (11.5mph) (18.5km/h) or more keep at least 30m clear or vessels, land or structures and 60m from swimmers or non-powered vessels


Wash refers to the waves and turbulence created by a boat as it moves through the water. The size of a boat’s wash and the effects it might have depend on how the boat is driven, its hull shape and how much load it is carrying.

Proper lookout

The master is responsible at all times for keeping a lookout for dangers. A 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. More information about waterskiing, wakeboarding and towing.

Putting limbs over any edge of a moving powerboat is prohibited

Bow riding is illegal

Bow riding means:

  • Extending any part of your body outside the perimeter of a power-driven vessel that is making way, or
  • Being on the bow in a position that increases the risk of falling overboard.
Always keep to the right

Giving way

The 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 special lights and signals
  • 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.

Sound signals

Special sound signals exist for powered vessels to indicate their manoeuvring intentions when they are in sight of one another. Click on the link to listen to a sound recording of the signal.

  • 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
  • 1 long blast - I am nearing a bend where another vessel may be obscured by an intervening obstruction.


  • Whistle - efficient sound apparatus capable of making 'short' or 'prologed' blasts
  • Short blast - about 1 second duration
  • Prolonged blast - 4 to 6 seconds duration

Manoeuvring and warning signals - Rule 34

Whistle signals may be supplemented by light signals using the same code:

  • I am altering my course to starboard
  • I am altering my course to port
  • I am operating astern propulsion
  • I intend to overtake you on your starboard side
  • I intend to overtake you on your port side
  • The vessel about to be overtaken indicating its agreement.

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.

A power driven vessel approaching a sailing vessel gives way by going behind the sailing vessel.

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.

Two power driven vessels heading towards each other veer to the right to pass each other safely.

Power driven vessels crossing

In crossing situations, give way to the right.

Always give way to vessels on your right. In this case the yellow vessel gives way to the red vessel.

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.

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.

The red boat approaches the yellow boat from behind. The red boat can overtake on either side of the yellow boat.

Sailing vessels and sailboards

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

Yellow boat has wind on starboard, red boat has wind on port and are about to cross. Red boat either goes behind yellow boat or changes direction to sail alongside the yellow boat and avoid collision.

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.

Both vessels have wind from the right. Red boat is between wind and yellow boat (windward) and so gives way by turning into the wind.

Safe distance and speed

A safe distance and speed between a vessel and a person or thing (including another vessel) is a distance and speed 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.

Changes have been made to the safe distance requirements (also known as ‘distance off’) from July 2016 by the introduction of the Marine Safety Regulation 2016. The revised rules are explained below.

When driving any vessel (including when towing a person or people) you must keep the vessel, any towing equipment and anyone being towed, a minimum distance of:

  • 60 metres from people in the water or if that is not possible, a safe distance and speed
  • 60 metres from a dive flag on the surface of the water or if that is not possible, a safe distance and speed.

Exceptions are when you are supporting swimmers or divers in the water; or your vessel is human-powered, eg a canoe, kayak, surf ski or rowboat; or it is a sailing vessel under 5.5 metres long without an auxiliary engine; or you are launching or removing it from the water taking care to avoid injuring people or damaging property.

A boat needs to leave a minimum of 30 metres between skiers and other vessels, and 60 metres to swimmers

When driving a power-driven vessel at a speed of six knots or more (including when towing a person or people) you must keep the vessel, any towing equipment and anyone being towed, a minimum distance of:

  • 30 metres from any other vessel, land, structures (including jetties, bridges and navigation markers), moored or anchored vessels, or if that it is not possible, a safe distance and safe speed
Power-driven boats travelling in opposite directions must remain at least 30m apart, or if that is not possible, a safe distance.

Parasailing vessels, any towing equipment and anyone being towed, must maintain a distance of at least 200 metres from any other vessel, bridge, cable, wire, pipeline or structure.

Designated swimming areas

Vessels must not be operated in a swimming area, unless permitted to do so by signage.

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.

Power-driven vessels must not be operated within 60 metres of a swimming area and the flags or signs marking such zones, unless they are a vessel operated by Surf Life Saving NSW or Council lifeguards or unless permitted to do so by a sign.

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

Diagram indicating 60m exclusion zones around swimming areas defined by signs (60m from shore)
Diagram indicating 500m exclusion zones around patrolled surf zone

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 centre for details of mooring areas.

Look out - divers about

Diving activities

Always keep a good lookout for people in the water, including divers, snorkellers, spearfishers and swimmers. Keep an eye out for the ‘Alpha’ flag, which means divers, snorkellers or spearfishers are in the water nearby.

Divers may be present in a variety of areas: Headlands, rocky reefs, bomboras and sheltered coves. Check your local boating map for likely areas before going out on the water.

Navigate with caution whenever within 200 metres of the shore where divers may be present. Be particularly careful when visibility is poor, such as in fog, glare, low light and surface chop.

Example of a florescent float and flag, used to draw attention to the blue and white Alpha flag attached above them.

The blue and white Alpha flag must be displayed whenever divers, spearfishers or snorkellers are operating from the vessel. It should measure at least 40 centimetres x 40 centimetres in size, be rigid, and be flown in a vertical position at least one metre above the vessel’s superstructure and visible through 360 degrees. In addition, it is a good idea to attach a high visibility fluorescent yellow/green flag to draw attention to the Alpha flag, whether it is displayed from a vessel, buoy or personal float.

Diagram showing that divers can be up to 100m from their float/flag. Steer well clear of the float/flag.

Alternatively the Alpha flag can be flown off a nearby float/buoy, in which case it must be at least two metres above the water level. It is also strongly recommended that a personal float and an Alpha flag be towed by snorkellers or spearfishers who venture more than 60 metres away from their vessel or who are operating from shore. For even greater visibility, it is a good idea to use a float that displays the high visibility colours.

If you see any Alpha flags, brightly coloured flags or brightly coloured floats, slow down and keep well clear. Remember you must stay below 10 knots when within 60 metres of anyone in the water, or a safe distance and speed if that is not practicable.

If you suddenly find yourself close to divers’ flags and/or floats, cut the engine immediately, look around and match people to floats before slowly motoring clear. Remember that spearfishers may be up to 100 metres from their float and flag.

Avoid passing between a diving vessel and the shore, pass well clear to the seaward side. Be aware that spearfishing and snorkelling vessels are not always at anchor, and often move about picking up and dropping off divers.

If picking up or dropping off snorkellers or divers, always be prop aware. More information on propeller strikes. Preferably switch off the engine first and always choose a safe position well clear of rocks or breaking waves so you don’t have to rush.


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

Safe side to pass dredge has diamond shaped markers or green lights - go. Obstruction side has ball shaped markers or red lights - danger

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 four 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.

A ferry underway has a flashing light on top, a red light at the stern and a red and a green light at the front.

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 NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) Fisheries office for more details about the rights of commercial fishing vessels.

A trawler shows a green light above a white light on a mast when working. A net or line fishing boat has a red light above a white light.

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