Boating During an Emergency

When is it ok to break the rules?

We were distracted while fishing and the fast-moving thunderstorm surprised us, as summer storms in Florida tend to do. The storm rolled over just as we came through the inlet into a no-wake zone. Still, we idled along, fine with the soaking until a clap of thunder occurred in concert with a bolt of lightning that seemed to strike land not 100 feet from our boat.

“Just punch it,” I shouted to my friend at the helm, and he gunned it the last mile until we glided safely into our covered marina slip. Once secure, I stated that you’re allowed to break the rules in emergencies or to avoid extreme danger — such as lightning — but I wasn’t exactly sure. Like all modern-day inquisitors with an instantaneous need for answers, I pulled out my phone and conducted a Google search.

Five Rules Boaters Should Never Break


I couldn’t find a direct answer on any official websites until I stumbled across a thread in a boater’s forum asking the same questions, and one participant linked to Florida Statute 379.2431. The 2013 statute lists the regulations for the protection of marine animals, using tools such as no-wake zones among them. At the bottom of the page, buried in the no-wake rules, is the following paragraph:

“A person may engage in any activity otherwise prohibited by this subsection or any rule or ordinance adopted pursuant to this subsection if the activity is reasonably necessary in order to prevent the loss of human life or a vessel in distress due to weather conditions or other reasonably unforeseen circumstances, or in order to render emergency assistance to persons or a vessel in distress.”

Though hard to find, the provision seems pretty clear-cut. Of course, the rules — and the exceptions to the rules — differ from state to state, so every boater should become familiar with local laws. And always keep in mind that the final say on whether your decision to forgo the rules was justified belongs to the authorities — not you. Just take a look at international maritime law.


Over 40 years ago, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) established the 1972 Colregs — the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. (Read on to get a head start on our Captain’s Test on p. 16.) In it, the IMO states that “these rules apply to all vessels upon the high seas and all waters connected to the high seas and navigable by seagoing vessels.”

The U.S. Coast Guard adopted these rules for inland waterways. In Section A, Rule 2 states that nothing in the rules exonerates the captain, crew or owner from the consequences of failing to comply with the rules. However, it goes on to say that “in construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.”

In other words, do whatever you can to avoid a collision. So know the rules of the road, and follow them. But also know that in times of emergency, your first priority is to stay safe.


Quick Tip: Judge miles from lightning by the seconds between a flash and thunder, divided by five.


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