The Navigation Rules: Disclaimer

The navigation rules contained in this course summarize basic navigation rules for which a boat operator is responsible on inland waterways. Additional and much more in-depth rules apply regarding various types of waterways, such as International Waters and Western Rivers, and operation in relation to commercial boats and other watercraft. It’s the responsibility of the boat operator to know and follow all of the navigation rules.

Remember to always refer to the state laws where you’ll be boating.

Sailboat operation

The ‘Rule of Responsibility’ requires all boat operators to understand and to follow the Navigation Rules at all times. The ONLY exception to following the Navigation Rules is if you MUST break a rule in order to avoid an immediate collision or danger.

For a complete listing of the Navigation Rules, refer to the document ‘Navigation Rules’ published by the Coast Guard available online at: www.uscg.mil/vtm/navrules/navrules.pdf.

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 road 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:

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 the risk of collision with another boat or obstacle. You should assign a passenger to act as your lookout ‘sidekick’ who can help you by staying alert for oncoming traffic, local hazards and swimmers.

Boat operator keeping a proper lookout

Operating at a Safe Speed

Boat operators must obey posted speed limits at all times and operate at a safe speed when a speed limit is not posted. A safe speed is one 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:

  • Hazards and obstructions.
  • Your distance from shore and other boat traffic.
  • The boat’s draft in relation to the depth of the water.
  • The dock (when returning to the dock).
  • A person being towed on a tube, wakeboard, etc.
  • The weather and water conditions (such as fog, rain and rough water).
  • The presence of background lights at night.
  • 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.

Boating right of way rules

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.

 

Determining Right-of-Way

To determine 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.

Right of way rules by boat type

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.
  • A 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.

If you’re operating a sailboat, 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.
  • 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.
  • A commercial fishing boat. 

If you’re operating a commercial fishing boat, 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.
  • Any boat with restricted maneuverability, such as a towing boat, a boat that requires a large draft or a work boat picking up navigational markers.

 

Collision Avoidance Rules: Powerboats Head-on Approach

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.

 

Port (Left) Approach

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 action to avoid your boat by reducing its speed and changing direction.

 

Starboard (Right) Approach

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.

 

Overtaking

If you are overtaking another power-driven boat (B) from the stern (from behind), you are the give-way craft (A) and do not have the right-of-way.

Overtaking a boat on the starboard side

You must take early and substantial action to keep well clear of the other boat by altering your speed and direction. You should pass at a safe distance to the port (left) or starboard (right) sector of the other boat. However, if a safe route exists, you should always attempt to pass the boat on the starboard side.

 

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.

Using sound signals for navigation

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.

 

 Collision Avoidance Rules: Sailboats 

Sailboat Navigation Terminology:

Port tack: When the wind is coming over the port (left) side of the sailboat.

Starboard tack: When the wind is coming over the starboard (right) side of the sailboat.

Windward: Indicates the direction from which the wind is coming (‘upwind’).

Leeward: Indicates the direction the wind is blowing toward (‘downwind’).

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). The following rules determine which boat has the right-of-way when a sailboat approaches another sailboat:

Sailboat navigation and right of way

Wind on Different Sides:

  • When each sailboat has the wind on a different side, the sailboat which has the wind on the port (left) side shall keep out of the way of the other.

Wind on the Same Side:

  • When both sailboats have the wind on the same side, the sailboat that is windward shall keep out of the way of the sailboat that is to leeward.

Note: If the operator of a sailboat with the wind on the port (left) side sees a sailboat to windward and cannot determine with certainty on which side the other sailboat has the wind, then the operator should keep out of the way of the other sailboat.