Mastering Rules of the Road: Is there a Right way to teach Right of Way?

When it comes to Rank Advancement, one of the most challenging to learn – let alone teach – are the requirements for Navigation and Piloting.  Filled with fancy terms, complex navigation rules, and enough diagrams to choke a horse, it can be overwhelming for both scouts and those teaching them.  So where do you begin?  How do you break this into manageable curriculum chunks?  How do you explain concepts about driving boats on the water (with no lanes or traffic signals) to teens who’ve never been behind the wheel of a car, let alone a boat?  Let’s work this out together.  Presented below are some tips and training tools that have helped the girls of our ship grasp these concepts, but PLEASE share which methods have worked for your ship in the comment section.

BoatingBasicsOnline is a great resource for learning the fundamentals of boat handling.

I am normally a huge advocate of going straight to the Sea Scout manual.  There’s no need to reinvent the wheel every time we teach something when we already have a relatively complete manual at our disposal.  But in the case of Rules of the Road / Aids to navigation, the pages upon pages of information in the manual can cause some glazed eyes in a matter of mere moments.  So while I wouldn’t recommend sending scouts straight to the manual, there is one group of people who should definitely start there:  those teaching the scouts.  It is imperative that the skippers, mates, parents or Able ranked scouts who have taken on the task of teaching this material fully grasp the concepts, diagrams, and rules concerning right-of-way.  This is one area where you simply cannot “fake it.”  And if you don’t have a grasp on the material, there’s little chance of successfully teaching your scouts.  If your ship doesn’t currently have someone well versed in this subject matter, now is a perfect time to reach out to your community or other local ships for help.  Your local Power Squadron is also a great resource.  Looking for an online reference?  Try  Or, bring in an expert to teach your scouts (and you!), it’s a win for everyone.

Once you yourself have this subject matter under control, it’s time to break out teaching tools.  In our case, we use toy boats (Tongue Twister Time: try saying “toy boats” 5 times fast.  This happens to be a great “brain break” to use while you teach).

Morning Star Toy Boats
Morning Star girls (Ship 1351) enjoy hands-on time with the boats.

A quick trip to the local Toys ‘R Us and about $20 later and we have a complete arsenal of toy sailboats, toy motor boats, and even a toy Coast Guard Boat (simply because it’s cool.)  I can assuredly attest that interest level peaks when you dump a mesh bag of toy boats on the table instead of saying “pull out your notebooks, pencils, and Sea Scout Manuals.”  Hands-on learning engages a whole other part of the brain that remains untapped when you just visually look at diagrams or are simply told information to copy into notebooks.

And did I mention it’s just plain fun to play with toy boats?  Because it is.

And scouting, after all, should be fun.

Once the boats hit the table, without saying anything we let the scouts mess with the boats for a few minutes.  Shiny plastic bobbles seem to grab the attention of kids of all ages, (even grown up kids with adult uniform insignia.)  Let everyone get their “I want to touch and play with the boats!” desire out of their system for 2 or 3 minutes and they’ll be much more likely to focus on the lesson while using them in practical diagrams.

We tend to start with motor boats.  They are the simplest to understand as there’s no concern of tacks or wind direction, such as is the case with vehicles under sail.  Arrange the toy boats in different configurations:  meeting, overtaking, etc, and allow the scouts to move the boats along their course while explaining the right of way rules.  (By the way, did you know that often times, the vessel to the RIGHT has the RIGHT of way?  Because I’d never heard that until a few short years ago. It blew my mind.  And luckily I have the confidence enough to admit that.)  As with any “rule,” there are always exceptions.  But it’s a good easy one to start with.

sailboat tacksIf your toy boats have movable sails, you’ll be better off since you can position sails to indicate tack.  Cut out a simple arrow (indicating wind direction) from some card stock (or just draw an arrow on a piece of paper) and you’re ready to start teaching about right of way under sail.  When the scouts can visibly see which vessel is closer to the wind, when they can move those toy boats around themselves, everything tends to click much easier.  When they can move the sails in logical directions, “port tack” and “starboard tack” become grasped concepts, not just obscure sailing terms.

Once your scouts are starting to understand Right of Way concepts using the toy boats, it is easier to dive into the finer points of Navigation.  You can audibly make blast noises while you turn boats.  You can add cut-outs of red and green circles and squares to indicate navigation buoys.  (A handy adage is “Red-Right-Returning” to help remember what side to keep the buoys on as your toy vessel returns to port.)  You could even pick up some simple red and green LED magnet lights to attach to the side of your toy vessels.  Or you could simply use more colored paper bits.  Again, the idea is to be as hands on as possible.  Create tangible, 3-D models and watch the comprehension soar.

yn3vnWe’d love to hear how you train your crew to learn the finer points of navigation and piloting.  If you try these activities (or have other successful methods), please let use know what you and your scouts thought by emailing

Finally, don’t forget to visit our NEW WEB PAGE, to see all our previous program and advancement contributions, helpful videos, a regional calendar, and more!

Happy Navigating!
~Erin Waggoner
Mate, S.S.S. Morning Star

Looking for additional training tools?
Click here for a comprehensive navigation & piloting study guide (especially handy for scouts working towards Able rank), here for a comprehension quiz to test your scouts basic comprehension of navigation and piloting, and here for a fun and unique piloting exercise that involves tracing your hand!



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