Navigation Rules

Navigation Rules

Much like driving on the road, boating is governed by a set of rules and regulations. It is essential that operators be aware of the boating behaviors or activities that may evoke danger and that constitute criminal offenses.

Such criminal offenses are set forth by the U.S. Coast Guard and violation of these regulations can bring penalties against the boat operator. Boaters must assume full responsibility for their vessel and its passengers, as well as any damage caused by the boat’s travel in the water.

The objective of this course section is to enable recreational boaters to recognize safe boating operation behaviors and good seamanship, therefore minimizing the dangers associated with the operation of watercraft. Although boat operators are expected to be knowledgeable of the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules in their entirety, this course will cover only some of the more prominent Inland Rules.

The following rules are covered below:

·         The Rule of Responsibility

·         Proper Lookout

·         Safe Speed

·         Collision Avoidance Rules

·         Restricted Visibility

Rule of Responsibility

The U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules spell out the responsibility of any vessel, boat owner, master or crew. Rule 2(a) points out that nothing in the Rules will exonerate them from consequences of any neglect to comply with the rules or the neglect of any precaution that is required as normal practice for seamen, or by any existing special circumstances.

The rule goes on to say in part (b) that due regard should be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances when construing and complying with the Rules, including the limitations of the vessel. This rule basically states that it is acceptable and permissible for a boat operator to deviate from the Rules when necessary to avoid immediate danger.

It is the responsibility of the boater to determine the safest means of travel and to follow the U.S. Coast Guard rules at all times, unless there is an immediate danger associated with doing so.

Proper Lookout

Keeping watch for others on the water is both common sense and the law. The Navigation Rules call for a proper lookout to be maintained continuously. Rule 5 states that “every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”

Boaters should use sight, sounds and all available means appropriate to make a full evaluation of their situation and any risk of collision.

Safe Speed

Travel speed is an important factor in the safety of a boat and its passengers. Operators should maintain a safe speed at all times so that they’re able to respond appropriately and stop quickly to avoid a collision.

Rule 6(a) of the Navigation Rules states that “every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.”

Rule 6(a) also calls for decisions on safe speeds to be made with the following factors in mind:

  • Visibility (fog, rain and other conditions require lower speeds)
  • Traffic density, including fishing vessels or any other type
  • Boat maneuverability, including turning radius and stopping distance
  • Background lights or glares at night time
  • Draft in relation to the available depth of the water
  • Proximity of navigational hazards
  • State of the wind, waters and current

Collision Avoidance Rules

It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the waterways are as safe as possible. Boaters should operate their watercraft in a safe manner at all times, making certain to avoid any dangers to their vessel, any other vessels, and any persons involved in any activity in the water. The following are important rules to aid in the avoidance of collision.

Rule 7(a) and (d) – Determining Risk of Collision

Rules 7(a) and (d) point out that every vessel should use every available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances or conditions to decide if a risk of collision exists. In times where there is any doubt, risk should be deemed to exist.

When determining if there is a risk of collision, the following considerations should be among those taken into account:

  • If the compass bearing of an approaching vessel does not appreciably change, this could be an indicator that the approaching vessel is unaware of your vessel and its bearing. Thus, since they are heading in your direction, it is important to be very vigilant as a collision risk is to be deemed to exist.
  • When approaching a very large vessel or a tow, or when approaching a vessel at close range, the appreciable bearing change may be evident. However, the risk of collision may still exist.

Rule 8– Action to Avoid Collision

In a situation where two watercraft are crossing each other’s paths, the vessel that has the other on its starboard side should assume the give-way responsibility and should alter course or speed to keep out of the way and avoid crossing in front of the other vessel. Such action should be taken as early and as proactively as possible and should be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel observing visually or by radar. Small alterations of course and speed should be avoided.

Two boats crossing each other's path

When there is enough surrounding sea room, changing course is often the most effective action to avoid a close-quarters situation. Action taken to avoid collision with another vessel should be done so with the following in mind:

·        The course alteration should be made in a timely manner and be substantial enough to avoid collision.

·        It should result in passing at a safe distance

·        The operator should confirm the effectiveness of the action until the other vessel has been completely passed and cleared.

·        Speed may be slackened or taken fully off by stopping or reversing, if necessary.

A boat that, by any of the above rules, is required to not impede the passage of another vessel should take early action to allow sufficient sea room for the safe passage of the other vessel. 

Rule 13(a) and (b) – Overtaking

A boat that is overtaking, or passing, another boat should ensure that it keeps out of the path of the other boat (notwithstanding anything contained in the Navigation Rules Part B, Sections I and II | 4 through 18). Boats can be overtaken on either side.

Boat overtaking the one in front

According to Rule 13 (b) of the Navigation Rules, a vessel is considered to be overtaking another vessel when it approaches from a direction of more than 22.5 degrees behind the other vessel’s beam. At this angle, the approaching boat’s operator would only be able to see the stern light of the other vessel and neither of the sidelights.

An operator who has doubt about whether his/her boat is overtaking another should assume that it is and act accordingly. Even if the bearing between the two vessels changes, the overtaking vessel should not cross the path of the other and should keep clear of the overtaken vessel until it has passed completely.

Rule 16– Action by Give-way Vessel

Correct actions to be taken by the give-way vessel

Every vessel that is directed to give way to, or move for, another vessel should do so as early and as proactively as possible.

Rule 17– Action by Stand-on Vessel

When two vessels meet, the stand-on vessel should “keep her course and speed” as the give-way vessel alters its course and passes. However, if it becomes apparent that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action to do so, the stand-on vessel may take action to avoid collision by changing course. In such a situation, the vessel should avoid altering course to port for a vessel on its own port side.

This rule does not relieve the give-way vessel of her obligation to keep out of the way.

Rule 18– Responsibilities between Vessels

Rule 18 gives instruction on the responsibilities of various types of vessels and their interaction with others. Based on the type of vessel a boater is operating, he/she may be required to yield, or give-way, to another type.

Power-Driven Vessels

Except where Rules 9, 10, and 13 otherwise require, it is expected and required that all power-driven vessels yield to any vessels that are not under command, are restricted in their ability to maneuver, or to any sailing and fishing vessels.

Sailing Vessels

A sailing vessel underway is required to stay out of the way of any vessel that is not under command or is restricted in its ability to maneuver and fishing vessels.

Fishing Vessels

Fishing vessels that are engaged in fishing when underway are to, as much as possible, stay out of the way of any vessel that is not under command or is restricted in its ability to maneuver.

Special Circumstances

Vessels that are not under command or are restricted in their ability to maneuver should, if the circumstances of the case allow, avoid impeding the safe passage of a vessel that is constrained by its draft, exhibiting the signals in Rule 28 of the Navigational Rules. A vessel that is constrained by its draft should navigate with particular caution with full regard to the special condition.

Seaplanes that are on the water should keep clear of all vessels and avoid getting in their way. If there is a risk of collision, seaplanes should comply with the rules of this part.

A wing in ground (“WIG”) craft should, when taking off, landing and flying near the surface, keep clear of all other vessels on the water. WIG craft that operate on the water surface should follow the same Rules as a power-driven vessel.

Wing in ground craft on the water

Restricted Visibility

Rules 19 (a) - (e) of the Navigation Rules give instruction for maneuvering in instances or areas where visibility is restricted. The rules apply to vessels that are operating not in sight of each other and are navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility.

Every vessel should proceed at a safe speed that has been adapted to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility. Power-driven vessels should have their engines ready for immediate maneuver.

When the presence of another vessel is detected by radar alone, a vessel should determine if a close-quarters situation is developing or whether a risk of collision exists. If so, the vessel should take timely action to avoid the collision. When such action consists of an alteration of course, the vessel should avoid the following:

·        An alteration of course to port for a vessel forward of the beam, other than for a vessel being overtaken;

·        An alteration of course toward a vessel abeam or abaft the beam.

Any time that a boat operator hears the fog signal of another vessel in front of his beam, or when he cannot avoid a close-quarters situation with another vessel ahead of him, he should reduce the boat’s speed to the very minimum at which he can stay on course. It is important to navigate with extreme caution until the danger of collision is over. Of course, if it has been determined that there is no risk of collision, the vessel may maintain its original speed.


The navigation rules contained in this course summarize basic navigation rules for which a boat operator is responsible on inland waterways. Additional and more in-depth rules apply regarding various types of waterways, such as International Waters and Western Rivers, and operation in relation to commercial vessels and other watercraft. It is the responsibility of a boat operator to know and follow all the navigation rules. In those states that Inland Rules do not apply, the equivalent International, Western Rivers or Great Lakes rule(s) may be substituted by the Course Provider.

For a complete listing of the navigation rules, refer to the document “Navigation Rules” published by the U.S. Coast Guard (COMDTINST 16672.2 Series) and available through the U.S. Government printing office or on the web at For State-specific navigation requirements, refer to the state laws where you intend to boat.

Recreational boaters are required to operate their watercraft according to the established navigation rules mentioned above. However, U.S. Coast Guard boating accident statistics continue to show that violations of these rules by recreational boaters are prevalent. The most common violations include not maintaining a proper lookout and travelling at excessive speeds.