I spoke to a boater today who said ‘you paddle boarders don’t know anything about right of way on the water!’ In some ways he’s right, as kayaks, canoes and SUPs generally aren’t educated on rules of navigation in urban waterways.  On the other hand as many of you know, many boaters don’t seem to know the rules either, so it goes both ways.In our area, with hot summer temps SUPs appear out of every nook and cranny in great numbers.  Some come from rentals, others appear with brand boards. I’d say 80% haven’t had a lesson or have any sort of education per boating right of way.  As a result SUPs rest, nap and or casually paddle a busy boating channel by our launch spot not realizing they’re in a navigable waterway.

Upstream is the Ballard Locks which releases 1-4kts of current. Downstream is the entry to a busy marina and open water.

What are your rights as a small human powered watercraft?

Without going into the details, the basics is that you don’t have right of way over motor, fishing and commercial boats.  Interestingly sailboats have the most rights particularly under sail given their lack of visibility from the cockpit and being under sail simply means you have less control.  Veteran boaters use the term ‘tonnage over donage’, meaning, if it’s bigger than you and under power, its best to get out of the way.

At low tides the above mentioned channel is dredged. On either side of the buoy marked channel are two large sandbars which dry out low tides. Many boats have grounded on the bars not realizing how shallow they can get.  When paddlers hang out in the channel at low tides, boaters can’t swerve, and lacking brakes can’t stop. There’s ample ‘shoulders’ or paddling space on other side of the boating channel for small craft like us, so you don’t need to go into the channel unless you’re going to cross it.

If that’s the case, I tell my students, it’s like crossing a highway – look both ways, wait for traffic, then go when totally clear giving you enough time to paddle across – while remembering to factor in the outgoing current from the Locks as well – the current will push paddlers closer to boaters thus reducing the time they thought they had to cross.

In summary, per the ‘tonnage vs donage’ I don’t recommend hanging out in the boating channel with a large tourist boat coming directly at you, as these two characters chose to do.  In this case the boat had to cut their power and go into reverse to prevent hitting the boarders. The guys stood there, one eventually taking his camera out to take a pic while the Argosy tour captain proceeded to blow his horn.  This happens every day in summer.

It’s frustrating as repeated activity like this is what creates additional restrictions for small craft on waterways. Case in point – the Locks upstream only allows kayaks and canoes to pass through, but not SUPs.

Coast Guard Right of Way Regulations:

If you want to read the Coast Guard details on boating right of way, have at it – here’s a lengthly document detailing the rules.


Salmon Bay Paddle SUP Tips