Rules of the Road... On the River

Knowing how to share the water with other vessels is a key part of safe paddling. Club members Katherine Winkleman, Steve Welch and Julie McCoy attended an event this spring promoting shared use of the harbor. Along with fellow paddlers, sailors, and commercial mariners, they took a tour of the lower Hudson and East Rivers, and heard from members of the community about potential hazards and the protocols to avoid them.

If there is one key point to remember, it’s that when on the water you are a mariner. Like everyone else, you’re expected to follow the “rules of the road.” It may seem silly to compare a kayak to a cruise ship, but there are rules for all vessels. We all work together to get where we’re going safely.

Communication and Visability.

In areas of significant traffic you should carry a two-way marine radio. This is a set of ears as much as a mouthpiece, and it’s a key piece of equipment for communicating with other vessels. In the harbor, the most important channels are 13 (bridge-to-bridge) and 16 (distress or hailing the Coast Guard).

Size matters. Small vessels, such as kayaks and paddleboards, will appear to be faster and closer than they actually are. Large vessels will appear to be slower and farther away than they actually are. Additionally, paddlecraft sit very low to the water and are harder for bigger ships to spot. Since VHF radio works by line of sight, our radio signals don’t travel as far, and may be obstructed.

Sounds and Lights.

All powered vessels are required to signal when they change course as well as when they depart from shore. Listen for audible signaling when approaching and passing working docks. Powered vessels must sound one short blast to mean “I am altering my course to starboard” and two short blasts to mean “I am altering my course to port.” Additional rules apply when powered boats are maneuvering within close range of each other. Five blasts of the whistle means “I do not understand your intentions,” and is not something you want to hear. Full details are in Rule 35 of COLREGS.

Night Lights for Paddlers.

This question comes up periodically. Rule 25 (d)(ii): “A vessel under oars may exhibit the lights prescribed in this rule for sailing vessels [i.e. sidelights and a stern light], but if she does not, she shall
exhibit an all around white light or have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.”

Area-specific Advice.

At the Battery, there’s a chill patch of water between the Statue ferry docks and the Staten Island ferry dock; it’s a good place to wait out traffic.

Just south of the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn side, is a ferry terminal and restaurant at a blind corner if you are northbound; be aware and swing a little wide for visibility. 

Be aware of security zones; these are marked at
Liberty and Ellis, and there are 25-yard zones at the Statue ferries and a 100-yards zone at the UN, which at times can extend across the entire East River. 

Changes in security zones are posted publicly and often cross-posted to community mailing lists.


The Safe Harbor is an organization that put together a nifty film a few years ago outlining the perspective of the harbor from each constituency. Their website and the full 28-minute video can be found here. There’s a shorter one about staying out of the channel at

The “rules of the road” are known officially as COLREGS. You can find a good summary and link to the full set at The Coast Guard has them posted at

Radio rules are simple but lengthy to describe.
Paddling Light has a decent primer: When I refer to trips I refer to the group as “Kayak [# of
kayaks].” So, if I have five kayaks in my group, we’re
“Kayak 5.”

Got questions? Contact an experienced member of the club. We’ll go over some of these topics in various classes this summer as well.