Rules on the water

It is your responsibility to know and understand the rules before heading out.

1. Listen and look ahead

You must keep a good lookout at all times.

It is your responsibility to stay alert for other boats, swimmers, dive boats, kayaks, hazards and obstacles. Keep focused on the water ahead, especially when travelling at speed.

Keeping a lookout prevents collisions, groundings, strandings and sinkings, which could involve the loss of life. 

Maritime New Zealand has published the position statement below on how the law applies to keeping a lookout at anchor and while travelling. It will help you understand your obligations under the law. 

Lookout Position Statement [PDF 576 kb, 2 pages]

2. Keep a safe speed

Travel at a safe speed, taking into account the boat traffic in the area, weather conditions and when visibility is limited.

Maritime NZ
Operate at a speed that allows for the time and distance necessary to avoid a collision.

You must not exceed a speed of 5 knots (a fast walking speed) if you are:

  • within 200m of the shore
  • within 200m of any structure
  • within 200m of a boat displaying a diver’s flag
  • within 50m of any other boat
  • within 50m of a person swimming
  • on a power boat if any person has any part of their body outside the rails or edge of the deck.

You must be over 15 years old to operate any water craft capable of exceeding 10 knots, unless there is close supervision by an older person who is constantly within reach of the controls.

Always check the effect of your wake. You must not create a wake that causes unnecessary danger to other boats or people.


3. Respect the give way rules

When two boats are approaching each other, one has the right of way. The other boat must give way and pass astern (behind). To determine who has right of way, consider the vessel type:

If power meets power

a safety diagram showing the right of way rule applied to two powered vessels going in opposite directions
  • Powerboats must giveway to those on the starboard (right) side
  • When meeting head on, powerboats must turn starboard

If power meets sail, paddle or rowing craft

a safety diagram showing the right of way rule applied to a powered vessel approaching a sailing vessel going in the opposite directions

With exception to specific displays, powerboats must give way unless the craft is overtaking.

If sail meets sail

a safety diagram showing the right of way rule applied to two sailing vessels sailing in opposite directions

A sailing boat must give way to another sailing boat if the wind is blowing from its port (left) side or if it is windward (upwind) to the other sailing boat.

Make early and obvious manoeuvres so there is no confusion. If the give way boat fails to give way, you must make every effort to avoid a collision. Be prepared to make substantial alterations to your direction and to slow right down or stop.

About collision prevention


4. Give way when overtaking

If you approach another vessel in a 135° sector at its stern, you are considered to be overtaking and must give way.

a safety diagram showing the right of way rule applied to a powered vessel when approaching a sailing vessel sailing in the same direction


5. Keep clear of big ships

Keep clear from the bows and paths of larger vessels.

Maritime NZ
See the dangers of big ships.

If you are in a channel or harbour, you must:

  • keep to the starboard (right) side of any channel
  • keep clear of larger vessels that are restricted by channels
  • not anchor in a channel or anywhere that could be dangerous to other craft
  • stay at least 500m clear when ahead of any large ship
  • stay 200m away from the sides and stern of tankers.

Large vessels have restricted maneuverability and limited visibility from the bridge.

Related information:

Know the rules

Get a sticker guide illustrating the give-way rules for all vessels.

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