How To Navigate Busy Waters

Follow these paddling tips for safer, smoother travel on heavily trafficked rivers, lakes and seas.

While the goal of paddling is often to get away from crowds, sometimes crossing busy, multi-use waterways is inevitable. Fortunately, just like road traffic, boat traffic follows certain regulations. Understanding these regulations—and knowing a few unwritten rules of the water—will help you execute such crossings smoothly. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re faced with a crowded waterway.   

Right of Way

Technically, non-motorized watercraft—like standup paddleboards (SUPs), canoes, kayaks, and sailboats—have the right of way over motorized vessels. So if you’re paddling across a lake, river, or cove, bigger boats should be watching out for you. That said, paddlecraft are usually the smallest, slowest and most vulnerable boats on the water, so you should still travel with extra caution. Stay out of the way of bigger, faster watercraft and give them a wide berth. Also note that sailing vessels have right of way over paddlecraft, as they’re less maneuverable.  


Avoiding bigger boats starts with knowing where they’ll be. Fortunately, you can use buoys as clues. Bigger boats need to stay in deeper water channels, which are marked with red and green buoys. When traveling upstream on a river, or returning from open water, motorboats follow the rule of the 3 R’s: red, right, returning. That means they have to keep red buoys on their right (and green ones on their left). But as a paddler, your best bet is to stay out of these channels altogether. Do that, and you’ll avoid most traffic.

Friends Paddling Kayaks on the Beautiful River or Lake near High Rock under the Dramatic Evening Sky at Sunset.

Channel Crossings

If you do need to cross a channel, first consider your proximity to other boats. Assess the closing distance of any boat in the area and, once you’re sure you have space, cross as quickly and directly as you can. Also, be mindful that bigger boats may not see you. Similar to crossing a busy road on a bike, you should have a plan of evasion if something goes wrong. Keep the following tips in mind.   

Pass port to port

When approaching another vessel, steer to the right, or starboard side. This will have you passing on the other boat’s left, or port side. If both boats always pass on the port side, you’ll avoid a collision. If you’re overtaking a vessel, however, you can do that on any side as long as it’s safe.

Be seen

Wear a brightly colored lifejacket and other high-visibility outerwear so other boaters can see you. Many companies make life vests with reflective materials or patches so you can be seen even more easily. You can also place reflective stickers on your boat or board. That said, reflective gear only does so much. Never make a big crossing on a crowded waterway at night. 

Group up

Travel as a group whenever possible, especially during long crossings. You’re more visible this way and safer if something goes wrong. Keeping together in a tight group also minimizes the inconvenience to other boaters. Be sure all group members know the plan and the end-point destination so everyone’s on the same page during the crossing. 

Avoid wakes

Give wakes from powerboats a wide berth. If you do encounter a wake, turn your boat perpendicular to it, hitting any waves head-on with momentum, paddling through them until they pass. Do the same if you’re on a SUP, dropping to your knees or laying down for more stability. 

Bring a whistle

You must have a whistle or another sound-producing device to warn other boaters to stay clear, signaling your location if you’re caught in fog (where a deck compass and map are also helpful), and alerting others if you’re in trouble. (The standard SOS signal is five quick blasts.) 

Use a VHF radio

To communicate with other vessels, many paddlers often bring VHF radios. These are two-way radios that use predefined frequencies for marine use and are monitored by the Coast Guard, local authorities, and other boats in case of emergencies. Here are some tips on how to use one properly. 

Consider getting a license: Many countries require a license to use a VHF radio. In the U.S., recreational users can use VHF radios without a license but must adhere to the established protocols. Be sure to read up on these before you hit the airwaves. 

Save battery: To conserve battery power, keep your radio turned off when not in use. Your radio is part of your emergency safety kit, so make sure it’s charged and available when you need it. 

Follow proper etiquette: Since every vessel in the area can hear you, keep your communication short and to the point, and only use it when you have to. Press the button to talk, and release it to listen. Be precise and clear. Whenever you’re done speaking, say “over” to signal that you’re finished transmitting. 

Mind the channels: While VHF radios have multiple channels, channel 16 is the most important for emergencies, as it’s what the Coast Guard and other ships monitor. Channel 9 is used to hail other craft, but once contact is made, you might be told to switch to a different channel to finish the conversation. Depending on where you’re paddling, other channels may be appropriate; check locally to find out what’s available. 

Understand emergency protocol: For emergencies that immediately threaten life or vessel, say, “Mayday.” For emergencies where no life or vessel is threatened, say, “Pan-pan.” Then, relay a calm, clear, simple message about the facts of your situation. Repeat your message every 10 seconds until someone answers.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.