Be a responsible skipper - manage the risks

Lookout! Issue 30, December 2013

Every boat, no matter how big or small, must have a skipper. The skipper is legally responsible for the safety of the boat and all the people on board, and is also responsible for complying with all of the relevant rules and regulations.

Know the rules of the road on the water

Even though a licence is not required to operate a recreational boat in New Zealand, ignorance of any maritime rule or regional bylaw is not accepted as an excuse. Failure to comply can mean you are operating unsafely and can lead to fines or prosecution.

Before you undertake any boating activity, we recommend you undertake some form of boating education and understand the “rules of the road on the water”. You also need to know, and follow, the rules, regulations and bylaws about safe boating in your area.

What ALL the skippers should know, to stay safe on the water

  • Every boat has to have the right-sized lifejacket for each person on board, and these are to be worn when there is considered to be a risk to safety.
    • MNZ recommends that all people on board wear a lifejacket at all times, especially when crossing a bar, in rough water, during an emergency. This is especially important for non-swimmers. Many parts of the country require lifejackets be worn at all times – check the bylaws for the area you will be boating in.
  • Get a marine weather forecast before you head out and listen for regular updates while you are on the water. Weather conditions can make the difference between an enjoyable day out and an uncomfortable or even tragic trip.
    • Many accidents involving small vessels are weather related. Bad weather makes the environment on board a vessel extremely hazardous and potentially fatal. It also places a lot of strain on the vessel’s structure and equipment and on the people on board.
    • Skippers should make sure they understand the different parts of a weather forecast and the best way to find up-todate local marine weather information. If in doubt, don’t go out!
  • Communications equipment is an essential part of safe boating – because if you can’t contact someone to say you’re in trouble, nobody can rescue you. Carry at least two ways to call for help on you that are waterproof.
    • Different types of communication equipment work in different areas, so you need to make sure the equipment will work in the areas you are boating in. You should carry at least two of the following at all times, so you can get help in the event of an emergency: distress beacon (PLB or EPIRB), hand-held VHF radio, cell phone (in a sealed plastic bag), hand-held flares.
    • If you have a VHF radio, make a trip report and stay in contact with Maritime Radio, or with the local Coastguard or marine radio service. Leave details of your trip and boat with a responsible person ashore, detailing where you are going, how many people you have on board, and when you expect to return.
  • Avoid or limit alcohol – moderation and common sense should dictate how much alcohol is consumed on your boat. Alcohol impairs judgment and the ability to survive in an emergency. Even in smaller quantities, alcohol affects your coordination and exaggerates confidence. It can also reduce your ability to perform tasks, impair your sense of direction, and cause unsteadiness.
    • Alcohol may also affect your ability to react if something goes wrong, increase the likelihood of ending up in the water by accident, and change the way your body reacts when you end up in the water.
    • As a skipper, you’re responsible for the safety and wellbeing of everyone on board your boat. A responsible skipper will never operate under the influence of alcohol or allow an intoxicated person to operate their boat. Allowing people to become intoxicated on board your boat will put them and others at risk. Parents supervising children need to be particularly alert while on the water and should avoid drinking any alcohol.
  • A person under the age of 15 cannot be in charge of, or propel or navigate, a power-driven vessel that is capable of a speed exceeding 10 knots – unless he or she is under the direct supervision of a person over 15 who is in immediate reach of the controls.

Rules of the road on the water for ALL boats

There are some rules that apply to everyone on the water, no matter what sort of boat you are operating:

  • Keep a proper lookout – watch where you are going at all times.
  • Keep to a safe speed – this means slowing down in situations where you may find it difficult to see another boat, for example in waves, rain or fog, or when there is glare on the water.
  • Understand and operate within the speed limits – the maximum speed permitted for all boats in New Zealand is 5 knots (about 9 km/h) within 200 metres of shore or any boat with a dive flag, and within 50 metres of any other boat or swimmer.
  • Know what to do when two boats meet – one boat has the right of way (stand-on boat) and the other boat is the give-way boat:
    • when you give way, always try to pass behind the other boat
    • above all, make your intentions clear
    • make substantial alterations to your direction and be prepared to slow right down or stop if you are in doubt
    • if the give-way boat fails to give way, you must make every effort to avoid a collision
    • keep to starboard (drive on the right) in channels
    • any boat approaching another from behind is considered to be overtaking, and must keep clear of the boat it is passing
    • consider the amount of wake your vessel generates when underway, especially in sheltered anchorages.


Every boat that is overtaking must give way. You are overtaking if you are approaching another boat anywhere in a 135 degree sector at its stern.

When power meets power

You must give way to another boat on your starboard (right).

If you meet head on, both boats must turn to starboard (right).

When things go wrong

The stand-on boat must take action if the give-way boat does not appear to be giving way. The stand-on boat should turn to starboard (right). If there is concern about available sea room when a collision is imminent, the stand-on vessel can slow or stop their vessel.

When sail meets sail

When the wind is coming from different sides, the boat with the wind on the port (left) side has to give way.

When both boats have the wind on the same side, the windward (upward) boat has to give way. (Special rules may apply between yachts competing in the same race.)

When power meets sale or a rowboat being paddled

The power boat gives way (unless the other boat is overtaking).

A sailing boat has to give way to a special case power boat displaying certain lights or day shapes (for example, a vessel restricted in ability to manoeuvre or a vessel displaying ‘engaged in fishing’ shapes).

Sailing boats should avoid sailing in a narrow channel. They should have to keep out of the way of power boats restricted by the channel.

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