Harbor Etiquette

How to be a good neighbor on your cruises this summer.

October 4, 2007

It is dusk in the quiet anchorage when, breaking the stillness of the afterglow, comes the ringing of a cellphone. It is in the cockpit of a nearby yacht, whose owners have somehow managed to reach shore without it. After an endless number of rings, it stops. Moments later, it starts again, and this pattern repeats itself for an hour as some fool on the other end of the line refuses to believe that a cellphone can actually go unanswered. From a boat in the anchorage, a dinghy crosses to the offending yacht.

I’m pleased to tell you two things: First, the cellphone was not thrown in the water (because that would be pollution-and besides, it might ring underwater anyway). Second, when the battery was removed, it wasn’t thrown in the water either, presumably for the same ecological reason.

After that, the assembled yachts enjoyed an evening of silence, thank you very much. But it did remind one and all that just as there are written Rules of the Road that cover the situations you encounter on the water, there is also an etiquette-you might call it a code of conduct-that is unwritten. This etiquette was once handed down from experienced skippers to first-timers in a chain of almost exquisite sensibility. But with the explosion of pleasure boating, too many novices are heading offshore without the benefit of advice or even manners. With more boats and too few harbors to handle the crowds, it’s important that everyone understand the rules of harbor etiquette that prevent problems and make for pleasant cruising.


For example, consider this basic situation. You arrive at an unfamiliar harbor to find that there are already boats anchored. Where do you anchor? How close can you anchor to another boat? Should you use just a bow anchor or bow-and-stern anchors? What are the “dos” and “don’ts” once you’re anchored? Is there in fact an unwritten etiquette of harbors that answers all of the above?

Yes, and it begins with one fundamental rule of anchoring: first come, first served. The first boat into any harbor gets its choice of location, and later arrivals must not infringe on the first boat by anchoring dangerously close. In fact, this is the only rule of etiquette that actually has legal precedence, and maritime courts have held that an earlier arrival has the right-of-way even though it’s at anchor. Boats arriving later must stay clear and, if they don’t, they bear the responsibility for any damage.

This can be a problem if the wind or current changes, causing boats to swing in differing circles depending on the amount of scope they have out on their anchor rode. So before you drop the hook next to another boat, be careful to consider what will happen if conditions change. To figure out your safety zone, you’ll need to know how much scope the earlier boat has out, and the best way to find out is simply to cruise past and ask. Knowing that they have 100 feet of scope means you need to drop your hook at least 100 feet away.


The “first-come, first-served” rule also applies to the anchoring style and, if the first boat is lying to a single anchor, then all later boats should do the same. If the first boat has bow-and-stern hooks out, it sets the precedent for the anchorage. Don’t like it? Go somewhere else.

Too many skippers charge into an anchorage and shoehorn themselves into any open space without prior thought. A wiser skipper will cruise carefully through the anchorage, looking to see where the other boats have anchored (and why), how much scope they have out, and where there seem to be open spaces suitable for anchoring.

While you’re examining the anchorage, take a moment to consider your own needs. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, you probably don’t want to anchor near that large motoryacht with the closed windows, which means they’ll run their generator all night to power the air conditioning. A boatload of kids is likely to be noisy (at least until bedtime), and a sportboat with a mega-watt stereo system is obviously an item to avoid, unless you’re in the mood to party like it’s 1992.


If, on the other hand, you’re the one with the generator, kids or stereo, common courtesy suggests you find a spot away from the anchored fleet so you aren’t a nuisance. It’s no problem taking Fido on board with you, either, as long as he doesn’t bark constantly or at midnight.

If being a good neighbor is part of the etiquette of an anchorage, anchoring is always its spectator sport: You’ll find other skippers watching you as you choose your spot. Don’t let them make you nervous or standoffish; instead, enlist them. If you aren’t sure of yourself, ask them for advice. I once entered an unfamiliar harbor and called to a man lounging in his cockpit for a tip on where to anchor. “Hang on a moment,” he said as he hopped into his dinghy, and then, “Follow me.” He led me over to a perfect spot that was protected from the breeze and had a good sand bottom for anchoring.

When yours is the boat that is already anchored, it’s good manners for you to help the later arrivals, if only as a defensive tactic. Don’t be shy in telling them that they’re too close, either, because it’s easier to resolve a problem in daylight than at two in the morning when the wind has shifted.


Whether you’re the first to arrive or the last doesn’t matter if you start to drag your anchor, because now you’re the burdened vessel in the eyes of the law and you must keep clear of all other boats. Everyone drags anchor at one time or another; it’s how you handle the situation that makes the difference. If letting out more scope doesn’t stop the dragging, the best thing you can do is to up anchor and move to a spot with a better bottom for the anchor to bite. Too many skippers delay the decision to move until they’re already banging into other boats, and perhaps causing those anchors to drag as well.

Once you’re settled at anchor, don’t stop being a good neighbor. If you plan to use your barbecue, don’t send clouds of smoke into the boats downwind. If you need to run your engine to charge the batteries, pick a time when it isn’t going to foul the anchorage with noise and fumes. And don’t impose your cellphone conversations on the entire anchorage, either.

Whether your musical preference is Jimmy Buffett or Snoop Dogg, don’t assume the rest of the anchorage is dying to listen. Remember that noise carries far on the water and that your neighbors may retire shortly after dark so, even though you want to party until midnight, either go with the flow or go elsewhere.

Which is not to say that social life should be ignored. One of the pleasures of an anchorage is to cruise around in your dinghy, carrying on with those on other boats. If you see people on deck or in the cockpit, the etiquette is that you approach on their starboard side to strike up a conversation. You’ll know quickly if they’re interested and, if not, just keep cruising. Never, ever, look in through the windows or board another boat without invitation (unless there is clearly an emergency).

There are marina manners to heed as well. When you’re stopping at the fuel dock, remember that other boats may be waiting for their turn-so ask before cutting in front of boats idling nearby. After you’re fueled, move out of the way if you need to shop for groceries or stretch your legs ashore, so others can get to the fuel pumps.

In the absence of a dockmaster or line handlers, it’s always thoughtful to help boats approaching or departing the marina with their lines. Keep your area tidy, too. Coil up your docklines and hose, don’t block the dock with barbecues or gear, and make sure your shorepower cord isn’t going to trip anyone.

In the end, boating etiquette is pretty simple: a matter of being a good neighbor. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be welcome in any anchorage.

Oh, yes: about that cellphone. The next morning, its owner found the battery in the cockpit along with a caustic note. And, yes, I know who did it but I’m not telling.


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