All About Etiquette

September 2010 Feature Janet Groene with Gordon Groene

We were in one of North America's most beautiful cruising grounds, Canada's Trent-Severn Waterway. We flew the American flag to indicate the boat's home registry and had brought a maple leaf ensign from home to fly in the place where one flies a courtesy flag in honor of the host country. We were correct, but a Canadian woman, unaware of maritime practices, bawled us out good for unfurling an American flag in her country. 

On the water, traditions run deep and tempers sometimes run high. When your houseboat is also your home you're representing not just yourself, but your homeland and the many, ancient traditions of the sea. Boaters who come after you will pay for your slip-ups. Admittedly, houseboating is far more relaxed than other kinds of boating. It's okay to call the head the bathroom, go upstairs and downstairs, and ignore some of the rigid rules that yachties live by. Nevertheless, it pays to observe old-fashioned courtesy, plus the time-honored rules of inland seas, rivers and oceans. 

Here are some things to keep in mind, especially when you're in marinas where houseboats mingle with sailboats and motoryachts. 

            * In some places it's considered trespass and even an act of piracy to set foot aboard another person's boat without asking "permission to come aboard." No matter how neighborly the marina, don't chance it.

            * Throwing things overboard is not only illegal and subject to enormous fines in most places, it's the worst form of disrespect. Whether it's a tiny cigarette butt or a quick-dissolving facial tissue, don't throw it over. Take all steps possible to keep things from blowing away, and do everything you can to retrieve objects that accidentally go over the side.

            * In many marinas it's considered bad manners to dry towels or swim suits on the rails. You could be embarrassed or even evicted. When you register for a berth at each new marina you'll be given rules in writing or they may be posted on the wall.  Take time to note them.

            * To leave the dock with fenders hanging over the side marks you as a landlubber. You also risk losing them or getting a line in the prop. As soon as you're clear, stow fenders and lines.

            * Most people respect marina rules about picking up after their dogs, but not everyone is as careful when a dog lifts its leg on a neighbor's dock line or cleat. If you have a pet on board, rush for the dog walk area with no marking, sniffing or piddling along the way. 

            * Even if you don't learn enough flag etiquette to "dress ship" using the entire alphabet, respect Old Glory with full honors. Go to and put Etiquette in the search window. Some of the rules regarding the American flag may surprise you. Be very sensitive about honoring foreign flags too. We were in a Caribbean island when it gained independence from Britain and our old courtesy flag, which was the Union Jack, would have been an insult if we hadn't quickly bought the flag of the newly independent island.

            * Observe rules of the road and radio procedures precisely. It's not only courteous and for your own safety, many state and national laws apply.

            * Noise carries across water. Keep voices down, put cell phones on vibrate and be prudent in the use of deck speakers. Even when all windows and doors are closed in a crowded marina, a barking dog or loud music can disturb neighbors two or three slips away.

            * Before anchoring in a crowded harbor, cruise around a bit to eyeball the situation. Boats that anchor first have legal right to their spot including enough swinging room in changing winds or currents. However, whether you're first in or last, you are the "burdened" vessel if your anchor drags. Make sure you have a good hook (or two) down. 

            * Rules about tipping vary greatly region to region, nation to nation. Be sensitive about the need to tip, when to tip, the need not to tip and the need to tip the correct amount. In poor nations, for example, armies of little lads show up to grab your lines, secure your dinghy, dive for coins and otherwise get in your way while putting themselves in danger. To tip them encourages more kids to show up with more "help" each day. In such cases visitors usually compare notes and come up with an unspoken agreement on tipping.

If you take a day cruise, say for whale watching or scuba diving, it's customary to tip crew or the divemaster. Is it customary to tip the dockmaster each time you tie up? Weekly? At Christmas only or at the end of your stay? How about a tip for the people who clean the marina laundry and showers? The office attendant who makes sure you get your mail?  The UPS delivery person who comes to your slip with a package instead of leaving it at the office?  Try to get advance information about local tipping practices, and then use your head and your heart.


About the Author       

Janet Groene and her husband, Gordon, lived on board for 10 years. Janet welcomes comments at www.

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