The Unwritten Rules of a Courteous Sailor

The Unwritten Rules of a Courteous Sailor

If you’ve spent any time on a boat you can appreciate the unwritten law of the sea, to help your fellow mariner. I’ve seen it many times in action and have been the rescuer and rescuee. Sailors don’t tend to hesitate when they see someone who needs assistance. I don’t know why, other than perhaps we have all made mistakes, and on the sea, this can lead to the loss of your vessel and your life!


Sailors also appreciate it when others take responsibility for their vessels at sea and in port. While there is a huge range in size, sophistication and investment, there are also unwritten etiquette and courtesies which are, for the most part, respected. This has less to do with uppity mariners raising their pinkies when quaffing their rum, and more to do with protecting lives and investments. Accidents happen but ignorance and carelessness are not well tolerated.

What is scope and why do I care?

An anchor is not just a heavy object that is thrown overboard to hold a boat in one spot. It is actually designed to ‘hook’ the bottom. If you pull on it too hard before it does hook the bottom, it will drag and the boat will not be secure. Kind of important if you’ve decided to drop the hook near Richard Branson’s “Necker Belle” or really anyone’s boat.

The term ‘scope’ refers to the ratio of the amount of anchor rode (line or chain) to the depth of the water. If you pull on the anchor without enough scope, the pull will be more in an upward direction and the anchor will not be able to hook the bottom. So you need to have an idea of how deep it is and also pay attention to marks on the anchor rode to keep track of how much scope you have out. Using polarised sunglasses will aid in determining if the bottom is sand, grass, rock or coral. Know what type of bottom suits the type of anchor you have.

Boat owners and sailing books have different numbers for acceptable scope for different situations, but a good general rule is:

a few hour stop (lunch hook) 3:1
overnight stay 5:1
unsettled weather 7:1

The bottom line is that newcomers to an anchorage should duplicate what their neighbors have out, as boats will swing through different patterns with different amounts of scope! Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for how close you can anchor to other boats. Try and find a spot that replicates the spacing already established and remember that the boat who got there first is not the one who has to move if you are too close!

“Caribbean Midnight” Go with the flow . Turn your anchor lights on and your sound down low.

After a full day on the water, you may find that shortly after you have dinner it feels much later than it is. This is known as “Caribbean midnight”. Don’t fight it, days start early on the water so if it feels late enough to turn in, go ahead!

closehauled-cruising-550x674This also means that if you don’t feel tired, be considerate of others in the anchorage. Sound reflects off the water and carries a long distance. You may think that everyone loves Jimmy Buffet as much as you do, but be mindful of your music, voices and if you have a generator, be considerate and try and run it during the day and not during happy hour or evening meal when sailors are enjoying the peace and quiet in their cockpits.

Being a good boat neighbor means turning on your anchor light. This not only helps people see your boat as they move through the anchorage, it can be one of many reference points for everyone to check that their anchor is not dragging. If you decide to eat a dockside restaurant and can see the anchorage, being able to pick out your own anchor light can make the evening a whole lot more relaxing and isn’t that why you’re here?

Aren’t moorings easier?

Moorings can be safer, faster and easier than setting an anchor, (someone’s already done the hard part of securing the line to the ocean floor) but they most always have an associated fee. In the USVI National Park, the current overnight mooring fee is $26. Make sure to check with the Park Service before you drop the anchor, as it is prohibited to anchor for most vessels within the park and can lead to a painful citation! Here is a link the USVI National Park marine visitor info page.

Things to consider:
Picking up a mooring is easy as long as you plan ahead. Attach one end of a dock line to the bow, and lay out the rest so that it will not get tangled and so that the other end (the bitter end) is readily found. Start from straight downwind of the mooring and slowly motor up to the mooring ball. Pick up the floating line (pennant) with a boat hook and thread the bitter end of the dock line through the loop. Secure the end to the same cleat it was originally attached to.

If you do not tie the line to the same cleat, the mooring line can ride back and forth and cut through your line! For overnight stays, you may want to repeat the process from a second bow cleat.

Dinghy Etiquette

My career as a new charter captain was almost cut short when I woke in the middle of the night and did not hear the slap of waves on the bottom of the dinghy. We thought it had been stolen, but at first light, our binoculars revealed that it was on the beach directly downwind of us. When I got it, I was surprised to see that the painter was still attached. Later, I watched the dinghy tug at the painter like a mischievous horse, and gradually pull the line off the cleat. It was a small line on a big cleat, which needs to be tied more securely than a proper sized line, but a clip would have stopped the colt from getting away! Consider putting a metal clip on the end of the dinghy painter. Then after making fast to a cleat, you can clip it to itself and avoid risking it slipping off the cleat and drifting off. closehauled6-26-09-550x674

Things to consider: When tying up a dinghy at the dinghy dock, always try and use a long painter and/or cable. This way other dinghies can still slip in to load and unload passengers.

Never lift your engine up at the dock, as the propeller can easily damage other dinghies.

Lastly, I find it interesting that more and more of the suburbs in the US have speed bumps or other traffic control devices. Unfortunately, there are none in an anchorage, so please resist the urge to drive at what would the equivalent of highway speeds through the boats! People swim off the back, boats swing and obscure things, and it is just noisy!

NOTE: The National Park Service posts a 5mph speed limit for ALL boats within mooring and anchorage fields. A good guideline!

Sailors are as vast and varied as their vessels but it doesn’t matter if you have a 3 million dollar boat or a 3,000 dollar one, the sea doesn’t discriminate. Sailors know this which is probably why there are unwritten rules when we find a fellow mariner’s boat in distress.  The experienced sailor knows it could just as easily be them next time and simple courtesies can save a life or at least prevent unnecessary damage and enemies.

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Glenn HarmanGlenn Harman is a USCG and RYA licensed boat captain who has been sailing in the Caribbean for the past 15 years. He is now a resident of St John and the author of the book “Captain Glenn’s Guide to the BVI’s”. It is available on Amazon and at

*Special mention to Close Hauled, for the great sailing cartoons!

Author: Glenn Harman

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5 thoughts on “The Unwritten Rules of a Courteous Sailor

  1. Freddie Popitz

    Great article Glenn!! Can’t wait to go cruising in the USVI soon and get to see You again

    4 years ago

  2. Maggie Carter

    What a great way to get this valuable info out to others. Thanks

    4 years ago

  3. Glenn Harman

    Likewise Freddie! It would be great to see you again…. I’ve already got a couple of dates for Painkillers at Saba Rock during the fall Pro-Am over at the Bitter End Yacht Club..

    4 years ago

  4. Glenn Harman

    Thanks Maggie, always happy to help boaters enjoy the beautiful waters around the VI!

    4 years ago

  5. Glenn Harman

    Here’s a nice link to some more info about anchor selection…

    4 years ago

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