After completing your BOATsmart! safe boating exam, you will be familiar with the rules of navigation across Canadian waterways. However, if you have not yet completed your course, or are a fully licensed boater who needs a refresher, check out this crash course in boat navigation!

Safe Boating Tip: Even with the Navigation Rules in place, you should never presume the actions of others and always proceed with caution.

Common Boat Navigation Rule Violations

Like the rules that apply to driving a car on a highway, there are rules of the water that boaters must follow when on the waterways. As a boat operator, you must practice good seamanship and obey both Inland and International Navigation Rules. The most common violations are not maintaining a proper lookout and excessive speeding. To make sure you do not fall victim to these violations, follow these BOATsmart! top tips for navigating safely in Canadian waters.

Maintaining a Proper Lookout

Boat operators must maintain a proper lookout at all times by sight and hearing. You must be able to clearly see all of your surroundings and to recognize if there is a risk of collision with another boat or obstacle. If you are boating with a crew, it is helpful to assign a passenger to act as your lookout, who can help you by staying alert for oncoming traffic, local hazards, and swimmers.

Operating at a Safe Speed

Boat operators must always obey posted speed limits and operate at a safe speed when a speed limit is not posted. A safe speed is the speed that allows you to take proper and effective action to avoid a collision and will allow you to stop your boat within a safe distance in relation to everything from hazards and obstructions, your distance from shore, the dock and other boat traffic, the boat’s draft in relation to the depth of the water, a person being towed on a tube, wakeboard, etc. A safe speed should also take into account the current weather and water conditions (such as fog, rain, and rough water), the presence of background lights at night and the maneuverability of your boat.

Determining Your Position and Course of Direction

When in boating traffic, you can determine who has the right-of-way by figuring out each boat’s position relative to the other on the water using the ‘sectors’ of navigation. The sectors of navigation include: The port sector, the starboard sector and the stern sector.

boatsmart navigation stern and starboard

Determining the Risk of Collision

As a boat operator, you are required to use every means possible to identify the risk of collision. If you can’t confirm by looking and listening whether the possibility of a collision exists, then you must always assume that the risk DOES EXIST and take the appropriate actions to remain safe. The Coast Guard asks all boaters to recognize that the risk of collision is still possible even if a boat changes direction, especially if it is a large boat, a tow boat or a boat at close range.

To determine which boat has the right-of-way, you must first understand right-of-way terminology:

Stand-on craft: Boats with the right-of-way are called the ‘stand-on craft’. Stand-on craft are able to maintain their speed and direction when they approach other boats.

Give-way craft: Boats that do not have the right-of-way are called the ‘give-way craft’. Give-way craft must take early and substantial action to steer clear of stand-on craft, and they must alter their speed and direction to avoid a collision.

The Rule of Responsibility

The type of boat you are operating and the types of boats you are approaching determine whether or not you have the right-of-way. If you’re operating a powerboat, you must give-way to the following types of boats:

  • A boat that’s NOT under command, such as an anchored boat or a broken-down boat.
  • Commercial fishing boat.
  • A sailboat (unless it’s overtaking your boat, in which case you would maintain your speed and course as the stand-on craft).
  • Any boats with restricted maneuverability, such as a towing boat, a boat that requires a large draft or a work boat picking up navigational markers.


When power-driven boats approach each other head-on, neither boat has the right-of-way. Both operators (A and B) must take early and substantial action to steer clear of each other and steer to starboard (to the right) as soon as possible in order to avoid a collision.

If a power-driven boat (B) is approaching from your port (left) sector, you are the stand-on craft (A) and have the right-of-way. You should maintain your speed and direction and be ready to take evasive action. The approaching boat (B) must take early and substantial action to avoid your boat by reducing its speed and changing direction.

If a power-driven boat (B) is approaching from your starboard (right) sector, you are the give-way craft and do not have the right-of-way. You must take early and substantial action to keep well clear of the other boat by altering your speed and direction.

If you are operating a sailboat or commercial fishing boat, you must give-way to a boat that’s NOT under command, such as an anchored boat or a broken-down boat, any boats with restricted maneuverability, such as a towing boat, a boat that requires a large draft or a work boat picking up navigational markers.

Using Sound Signals for Navigation

One short blast = I’m altering my course to starboard (to the right).

Two short blasts = I’m altering my course to port (to the left).

Three short blasts = I’m operating my boat in reverse.

Five rapid blasts = I’m unsure of the other boater’s intentions.

One long blast = I’m leaving the dock and am a motorized boat of 12 m or longer.

Exception: If you’re operating a boat on the Great Lakes:

One short blast = I want to pass you on my boat’s port (left) side.

Two short blasts = I want to pass you on my boat’s starboard (right) side.

During periods of reduced visibility:

Sailboats should sound one long blast followed by two short blasts.

Motorized boats should sound one long blast every two minutes.

Boats at anchor should blast a sound signal rapidly for about five seconds every minute.

boat navigation sailboats

Sailboat Right-of-Way

Even if you never plan on operating a sailboat, understanding the Collision Avoidance Rules for sailboats is part of being a responsible boat operator. You should know sailboat rules in order to operate around sailboats safely. A sailboat always has the right-of-way over a powerboat (unless the sailboat is overtaking the powerboat, in which case the sailboat becomes the give-way craft).

Take the BOATsmart boating safety course to fully learn the rules of navigating boats in Canadian waters, and get your Personal Craft Operator Card or boating license.