U.S. Coast Guard Clarifies Commercial Parasail Vessel Encounter Rules

U.S. Coast Guard Clarifies Right of Way Rules for Commercial Parasail Craft

Safety Officer Explains Rules for All Mariners Navigating Mamala Bay

A near-collision, on July 4th, between a Cal 20 sailboat, under sail, and a commercial parasail vessel that was towing a kite behind it with two passengers under, ignited an urgent inquiry to the United States Coast Guard, Sector Honolulu, regarding confusion over rules of the road.  According to the skipper of the sailboat, the captain of the parasail vessel indicated, as he passed within inches dowsing the sailboat and its crew with its wake, that he had the right of way and that sailboats had to stand clear.

Shortly after returning to shore, the sailboat captain, with more than thirty-five years of sailing experience in Mamala Bay, called the U.S. Coast Guard to report the incident.   The skipper claims that the two individuals that she spoke with at the Coast Guard office indicated different stances on the issue ranging from a comment about commercially permitted vessels having priority, to commercial parasail vessels in the so-called DLNR's "Thrill Craft fly-zone" having priority, to a discussion about parasail vessels being considered vessels-in-tow and therefore potentially having the right of way.

When Hawaii Ocean News staff got wind of the story, we became concerned as there apparently was some ambiguity regarding just who, in fact, has the right of way in heavily trafficked Mamala Bay.  The lack of clarity about this issue could be very dangerous, given the amount of traffic in the Bay, and there needed to be a definitive statement from the Coast Guard regarding this question.   In order to clear things up, we reached out to U.S. Coast Guard Safety Officer, Sara Muir, to get some concrete answers.

Our discussions centered around the U.S. Coast Guard Rules of the Road, Rule 2, Rule 3-VI, and Rule 18 (https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/?pageName=NavRulesAmalgamated#ability%20to%20maneuver)  regarding specifics such as the definition of "burdened vessel", "vessel-in-tow", and general vessel-encounter scenarios and rules that apply to these.

It might be interesting to note that the State of Hawaii, via the DLNR, is responsible for commercial vessel permitting and ensuring the safe operation of these commercial activities so as not to pose a threat to private or other commercial vessel activity in Mamala Bay.   The DLNR, overwhelmed and having few, if any, resources for enforcing rules in the Bay, has set up a so-called "Thrill Craft" fly-zone for the operation of parasail commercial activity in Mamala Bay, the exact position of which is not readily available to the general public via Notices to Mariners.  Not surprisingly, the DLNR has been somewhat remiss in actually notifying the public as to the precise location of the "Thrill Craft" fly zone in Mamala Bay.   After a full fifteen minutes of Googling for more information about the DLNR's fly-zone boundaries, we didn't have much luck finding an actual map that clearly indicated fly-zone boundaries in Mamala Bay, but we did come across this non-DLNR, non-State-of-Hawaii website that gives a verbal description of where one might hope to find this zone (this site erroneously labels Mamala Bay as Maunalua Bay): http://hawaii-boating.bizhosting.com/thrillcraftareas.html .

After further investigation by Chief Muir, we received the following clarification regarding the right-of-way responsibilities of all vessels transiting Mamala Bay in the presence of thrill-seeker commercial craft:


Good day Katherine,

Thank you for your patience as we reviewed this query and the specific rules as applicable to the situation described by you and the master of the Cal20 in early July.

I've consulted with our local sector and our waterways and navigation divisions at Coast Guard headquarters to ensure a consistent interpretation. You may attribute the following to me or the Coast Guard in general. The Coast Guard takes the navigation rules very seriously and reminds all waterways users not to apply the rules in isolation. The navigation rules require every vessel at all times maintain a proper look-out and proceed at a safe speed. Further, all vessel operators must make all possible efforts to avoid a collision.

In the specific case described of a two boat meeting situation between a sailboat under sail and a powerboat with a parasail deployed and people aloft; in the purest sense of the hierarchy of vessels, of the two the sailboat has the right of way.

All boaters are cautioned that Mamala Bay is a very busy waterway and many meeting situations may include more than one vessel. Mariners must be cognizant of other traffic and navigational hazards. It also advises mariners to signal intent, not make assumptions and if in doubt communicate. Mariners are reminded to monitor Channel 16 over the VFH-FM radio, and the Coast Guard expects this of commercial mariners.

Mariners who observe an activity of concern on our waterways and wish to raise those concerns with the Coast Guard should take note of the action, the time and date, the location, the vessels and parties involved, any witnesses or visual proof and make a report to the Coast Guard. Please be as detailed as possible when making a report, to aid Coast Guard investigators in their ability to take further action and address mariner concerns. The Sector Honolulu command center can be reached at 808-842-2600.

An additional resources for addressing specific issues is the Hawaii Ocean Safety Team (HOST), a group of waterway users who have more local waterway information available from the historical perspective. Concerning parasail activity, the operation of these vessels and sails happens with additional oversight and regulation from the State of Hawaii and the FAA constraining when, where and how they may operate. I highly recommend you seek comment from them as well.

Regards, Chief Muir


We had a look at the HOST website and it seemed a bit spartan.  We were told by an administrator of one of the commercial tour boat operations in Mamala Bay that HOST had a map image of the "Thrill-Craft Fly Zone", but as of this writing, we've been unable to find it (we're diving back in to have another look).  HOST appears to want to convince us that ocean recreation users can depend on State emergency response in Hawaii's ocean environment, but with little in the way of vessel ocean safety enforcement/rescue resources from the State, and the Coast Guard's stance that waters around the Hawaiian Islands are the responsibility of the DLNR, we're still waiting to be convinced of this.   For instance, no prudent mariner with any experience in Hawaiian waters would ever think to call the DLNR first when needing assistance in the event of a vessel emergency.  To our knowledge, the DLNR doesn't even monitor Ch 16.

We continually reach out to the DLNR for additional clarifications, and will provide these as we receive them.

In conclusion, regarding the question of who has the right of way,  commercial parasail vessels or sailboats under sail:  sailboats clearly have the right of way (Rules 2, 3-VI, and 18 support this premise); sailboat skippers and parasail skippers are required to maintain a constant vigilance at the helm, especially in the Bay, and use commonsense to avoid potentially dangerous encounters.  Parasail vessels must make every effort to steer clear of vessels under sail.  Likewise, sailboat skippers need to continuously monitor their position with regards to other vessels so as to avoid potentially dangerous encounters.   Note to sailing vessels:  you are NOT considered 'under sail' when you are motor-sailing.  

Again, every skipper is required to be vigilant in Mamala Bay and to use commonsense when course trajectory might indicate potential problems. 

Our thanks to Sector Honolulu's Chief Muir for her clarification.

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