The Rules Guy: Limitations on Right of Way Boats – Establishing Right of Way

May 15, 2024

The first four rules in Part 2 of the Racing Rules of Sailing (Rules 10, 11, 12 and 13) establish which boat must keep clear when two boats meet. The next few rules (Rule 15, 16 and 17) put limits on the right-of-way boats. With this article we will start with Rule 15.  Rule 15 applies when the right of way changes. 

In the first diagram, Blue and Yellow are sailing on a reaching leg. At position 1, Blue is clear astern of Yellow. Rule 12 says that Blue shall keep clear of Yellow. At position 2, Blue gets an overlap to leeward of Yellow. Blue is now the leeward boat and Yellow must keep clear. Yellow immediately alters course to try to keep clear, but her stern touches Blue. Blue has just become the right-of-way boat, so Rule 15 applies. Blue has to initially give Yellow room to keep clear. Yellow did not have room, so Blue broke Rule 15. If Yellow had waited a while, then the “initially” in room 15 would have run out and Yellow would have broken rule 11. There is no clear definition of “initially” since it depends upon the conditions, but it is a short time. It is time for the other boat to react. 

We looked at another common situation when this applies a few months ago. In positions 1 and 2 Red is on port tack and Green is on starboard tack, so Red has to keep clear. From position 3 to position 4, Red is a tacking boat so she still has to keep clear. At position 5, when Red gets to a close-hauled course, she has completed her tack. Red is clear ahead of Green, so Green has to keep clear. Initially under rule 15, Red has to give Green room to keep clear. 

The next diagram illustrates the other part of the rule. Orange is clear ahead of white, and to leeward. White has to keep clear of Orange. From position 4 to 5 Orange tacks in front of White onto port tack. White is now the right-of-way boat. Since White became the right-of-way boat because of Orange’s actions, White does not have to initially give Orange room to keep clear.

Room The space a boat needs in the existing conditions, including space to comply with her obligations under the rules of Part 2 and rule 31, while manoeuvring promptly in a seamanlike way.
When boats are on opposite tacks, a port-tack boat shall keep clear of a starboard-tack boat.
When boats are on the same tack and overlapped, a windward boat shall keep clear of a leeward boat.
When boats are on the same tack and not overlapped, a boat clear astern shall keep clear of a boat clear ahead.
After a boat passes head to wind, she shall keep clear of other boats until she is on a close-hauled course. During that time rules 10, 11 and 12 do not apply. If two boats are subject to this rule at the same time, the one on the other’s port side or the one astern shall keep clear.
When a boat acquires right of way, she shall initially give the other boat room to keep clear, unless she acquires right of way because of the other boat’s actions.
Andrew Alberti

Andrew Alberti is an International Judge and National Umpire. He is a member of the Sail Canada Rules and Appeals Committees. Send your questions to Andrew at

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