Recreational boating has seen the explosion of a number of late, and participation has only increased through the 2020 season, heightening both confusion and (let’s use the word) “friction” between the powered and unpowered boating public… we previously discussed the need for both knowledge and understanding between these groups back in 2013, but it bears repeating again.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s gonna get a little muddled; so remain patient, as well as objective, and don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees…

Referencing The Navigation Center website [US Department of Homeland Security/United States Coast Guard] (

Question 13 asks: Where do Kayaks and Canoes fit into the Navigation Rules? 

Answer: Kayaks and Canoes are defined as a vessel under oars and are addressed specifically in Rule 25, (regarding LIGHTS; yet, by definition/Rule, nowhere else) - Furthermore, although a vessel under oars may lawfully be lit as a sailing vessel, one SHOULD NOT infer that they are considered to be a sailing vessel for other Rules {specifically, Rule(s) 9 [see 103.7 below], 10, 12, 18, and 35}.

Ultimately, the issue of whether a vessel under oars is the give way or stand-on vessel would fall to what would be required by the ordinary practice of seamen (IE: established Rules of the Road), or by the special circumstances of the case (Rule 2; see note below), and the notion that human-powered boats are less able than most other vessels.  However these watercraft, by specific definition, are not: (1) a “vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver” (Rule 3; see note below); (2) a “vessel not under command”; or (3) “adrift” (given the immediate availability of steerage, as well as propulsion, by extension of the operator through a paddle).

NOTE(s): As taken from the USCG—Navigation Rules (updated 02 August 2020)


(b) In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.


(g) The term “vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver” means a vessel which from the nature of her work is restricted in her ability to maneuver as required by these Rules and is, therefore, unable to keep out of the way of another vessel. The term “vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver” shall include but not be limited to:

(i) A vessel engaged in laying, servicing, or picking up a navigational mark, submarine cable or pipeline; (ii) A vessel engaged in dredging, surveying or underwater operations; (iii) A vessel engaged in replenishment or transferring persons, provisions or cargo while underway; (iv) A vessel engaged in the launching or recovery of aircraft; (v) A vessel engaged in mine clearance operations; (vi) A vessel engaged in a towing operation such as severely restricts the towing vessel and her tow in their ability to deviate from their course.

Therefore, upon applying both definition and Rule (law), canoes and kayaks don’t inevitably receive “right-of-way” over powerboats; however, powerboats encountering canoes/kayaks must be aware of the inherent limitations occurring with a vessel under oars; and, under Rule 2, shall apply due regard to all dangers of navigation, collision and to any special circumstances.





Essentially, it goes like this…

  1. Under the established Rules, human-powered boats (vessel under oars) are subject to the same navigational requirement as a powerboat; and, therefore, they must navigate under what would be required by the ordinary practice of seamen (IE: established Rules of the Road).

  2. , as well as human-powered craft being less able (referencing maneuvering opportunity relative to time, as opposed to an inherent legal principle) than most other vessels, Rule 2 (see above) maintains that due regard (on the part of the powerboat operator) shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger. 


Therefore, regardless of who has the navigational right-of-way (stand-on vessel), neither operator has the legal authority to “fail to take sufficient and proper action to avoid a collision.”

  1. In meeting, crossing, and overtaking situations the Give-way Boat (without right-of-way) shall keep out of the way of the other boat by taking early and substantial action to keep well clear AND the Stand-on Boat (having right-of-way) shall maintain course and speed; and the Navigational Rules, absent special circumstances, dictate which role the powered, as well as the unpowered vessel, shall adopt. [Refer to Chapter 3 of the PA Boating Handbook and/or YouTube].

  2. Lastly, a channel (in its simplest form) is defined as “a natural or dredged lane restricted on either side by shallow water”, and by its nature encompasses both the type of vessel(s) and the “environmental constraints” of the circumstances encountered.  Section 103.7, of 58 PA Code, covers Narrow Channels (aka Rule 9); furthermore, rule 9, through context, and absent specified local reference, “leaves it to mariners to determine when the rule applies.” That said, allowing best practice and prudence to govern, subsection (a) to (g), of 103.7, read as follows; and, unless specifically stated, exempt neither powered nor unpowered watercraft:


(a)  A boat proceeding along the course of a narrow channel shall keep as near to the outer limit of the channel which lies on its starboard—right—side as is safe and practicable.


(b)  Notwithstanding subsection (a), a power-driven boat operating in narrow channels on the Great Lakes, Western Rivers, or waters specified by the Commission or Executive Director and proceeding down-bound with the following current, shall have the right-of-way over an up-bound boat. The boat proceeding upbound against the current shall hold as necessary to permit safe passing.


(c)  A boat of fewer than 20 meters (39.4 feet) in length, or a sailing boat, may not impede the passage of a boat that can safely navigate only within a narrow channel.


(d)  A boat may not cross a narrow channel if the crossing impedes the passage of a boat which can safely navigate only within that channel.


(e)  A boat shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid anchoring in a narrow channel.


(f)  A boat nearing a bend on an area of a narrow channel where other boats may be obscured by an intervening obstruction shall navigate with particular alertness and caution.


(g)  A boat engaged in fishing may not impede the passage of another boat navigating within a narrow channel or fairway.

The Commonwealth’s waterways have become increasingly more crowded, and are likely to remain so.  Now more than ever, every watercraft operator (regardless of type) has both a duty and obligation to understand, practice, and abide by the established “Rules of the Road” during their outdoor adventures upon Pennsylvania’s “endless waters.”