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Navigation Rules of the Road

The navigation rules call anything that floats on the water and can be used for transportation a "vessel." Whether your boat is a cabin cruiser or a raft built by Tom Sawyer, for the rest of this section, it will be called a vessel. Other definitions you need to understand:

Power-driven vessel: any vessel that is propelled by machinery

Sailing vessel: any vessel under sail and being propelled only by the wind

Vessel engaged in fishing: any vessel fishing with nets, lines, trawls, or other fishing apparatus that restricts its maneuverability

Seaplane: any aircraft designed to maneuver on the water

Restricted visibility: any condition in which visibility is restricted by fog, mist, falling snow, heavy rainstorms, sandstorms, or any other similar causes.

Underway: any vessel not anchored, made fast to the shore, or aground

You also need to know which vessel needs to yield when two vessels approach each other. Unlike vehicles on the road, vessels in the water have different rules for yielding depending on their size, shape, and means of propulsion. Basically, the easier it is for you to get out of the way of another vessel, the more likely it is that you are responsible for yielding. A sailboat without a motor, for example, is harder to turn quickly than a motor boat of the same size, so the motor boat is the one that has to change course.

If you are in a power-driven vessel, you need to keep out of the way of:

  • A vessel not under command
  • A vessel restricted in its ability to maneuver
  • A vessel engaged in fishing
  • A sailing vessel

There are three different sets of navigation rules:

  • Inland
  • International
  • Great Lakes [including their connecting and tributary waters including the Calumet River as far as the Thomas J. O'Brien Lock and Controlling Works (between mile 326 and 327), the Chicago River as far as the east side of the Ashland Avenue Bridge (between mile 321 and 322), and the Saint Lawrence River as far east as the lower exit of Saint Lambert Lock], Western Rivers (including the Mississippi River, its tributaries, South Pass, and Southwest Pass, to the navigational demarcation lines dividing the high seas from harbors, rivers, and other inland waters of the United States, and the Port Allen-Morgan City Alternate Route, and that part of the Atchafalaya River above its junction with the Port Allen-Morgan City Alternate Route including the Old River and the Red River), or waters specified by the Secretary (Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Tombigbee River, Black Warrior River, Alabama River, Coosa River, Mobile River above the Cochrane Bridge at St. Louis Point, Flint River, Chattachoochee River, The Apalachicola River above its confluence with the Jackson River)

Navigation maps show the lines of demarcation between the inland and international bodies of water. If you are unsure which set of rules to follow, check the map or ask the local harbor master or other boating expert. Unless specified otherwise, you can assume the rules in this section are the same for all three classifications.

Types of Vessels

In terms of yielding, the two types of vessels are "stand on" and "give way." If you are the stand-on vessel like the sailboat in the following example, you should not alter your course unless there is a danger of collision. When you are the stand-on vessel, maintain your course and speed so the give-way vessel can predict what you will do.

If you are the give-way vessel like the motor boat above, you have to get out of the way of the stand-on vessel. When you are the give-way vessel, you make a significant course change early enough that the stand-on vessel knows you are responding correctly.

It is always better for both vessels to give way than to collide before they can decide who will give way and who will stand on.

Danger and Safe Zones

The area around your boat is divided into three sectors: port, starboard and stern. Each of these sectors is color coded the same as the navigation lights on your boat: the starboard sector is green, the stern sector is white, and port sector is red.

The starboard or green sector is known as the danger zone because when a boat approaches from that side, your boat is in danger if you don't get out of the way. When a boat approaches from the starboard side, you see the red light on their boat, and you are the give-way vessel. When you see the green light of the other boat, you are in the safe zone because you are the stand-on vessel and will continue going in the same direction. Seeing green on the other boat means go or continue, and seeing red means there is danger if you don't change your direction.

Sound Signals

To let the other vessels know which way you will be heading, you signal them with either a short or long blast of your horn (or other sound signal device) or a combination of short and/or long blasts. A short blast lasts about 1 second, and a long blast lasts 4 to 6 seconds.

If you are the give-way vessel, you will give the proper signal, and if you are the stand-on vessel, you will repeat the signal to let the other vessel know you understand their intentions. If both vessels are the give-way vessel, either one can initiate the signal.


If you are ever unsure of the intentions of the other vessel or if there is danger ahead, sound five or more short blasts.

The following table lists the navigation situations and the appropriate sound signals.


Sound Signals

One short blast

I intend to leave you on my port side (I intend to turn to the right and pass you on your port side)

Two short blasts

I intend to leave you on my starboard side (I intend to turn to the left and pass you on my starboard side)

Three short blasts

I am operating astern propulsion (astern propulsion is used to slow a ship by applying a force in the direction of the stern of the ship, instead of the bow), which means you are slowing down or even moving backward.

Five or more short blasts

I don't understand your intentions or there is danger.

One prolonged blast

I'm coming to a bend or obstruction and you may not be able to see me.

One prolonged blast every two minutes

I am in a power boat. Visibility is reduced (because of fog, for example), and you may not be able to see me.

One prolonged blast plus two short blasts every two minutes

I am in a vessel constrained by her draft or restricted in her ability to maneuver, a sailing vessel, a vessel engaged in commercial fishing, or a vessel engaged in towing or pushing another vessel. Visibility is reduced, and you may not be able to see me.

Two prolonged blasts followed by one short blast

I am in International Waters in a narrow channel or fairway and I intend to overtake you on your starboard side.

Two prolonged blasts followed by two short blasts

I am in International Waters in a narrow channel or fairway and I intend to overtake you on your port side.

One prolonged, one short, one prolonged and one short blast

I am in International Waters in a narrow channel or fairway and I understand your intentions to overtake me.


Rules for Powerboats

Crossing Situations - Meeting Head On

When your power vessel is headed toward another power vessel, turn to the right so that you both pass each other on the port side.


If you are boating on the Great Lakes, Western Rivers, or waters specified by the Secretary, the direction of the current changes which vessel is the give-way vessel and which is the stand-on vessel. If you are proceeding downbound with a following current, you are the stand-on vessel, and the upbound vessel is the give-way vessel.


Crossing Situations - Crossing Paths

When the path of your vessel will cross the path of another power vessel, if the other vessel is on your starboard side, you will see their red light and you are the give-way vessel. When possible, cross behind the other vessel, not in front of it.


If you are boating on the Great Lakes, Western Rivers, or waters specified by the Secretary and you are crossing the current, you need to keep out of the way of a vessel going with or against the current.


Crossing Situations - Narrow Channels

If you are navigating through a narrow channel or fairway, keep as close as safely possible to the outer limit of the channel on your starboard side.

If you are in a narrow channel on the Great Lakes, Western Rivers, or waters specified by the Secretary and are headed down-current with a following current, you are the stand-on vessel. If you are traveling against the current, you are the give-way vessel and must give the other vessel plenty of space to permit safe passing.

If your boat is less than 20 meters long or you are on a sailboat under sail, you must not impede the passage of a vessel that can only navigate through a narrow portion of the channel.

Unless it's an emergency, never anchor in a narrow channel.

Crossing Situations - Overtaking Another Vessel

If you want to pass a slower vessel that's headed in the same direction, you can pass on either the port or starboard side. Before passing, be sure there are no other vessels in the way, and be sure the water is deep enough and the channel is wide enough that you can safely pass. If you are the vessel being passed, do not change your course or speed except to avoid a collision.

The vessel in front of you will know you want to overtake it when you come from a direction more than 22.5° abaft (behind) its beam. If it were dark when you were approaching the vessel, you would only be able to see the sternlight of the vessel in front of you, not either of the sidelights.

Special Rules for Sailboats

For sailboats, the direction of the wind determines which vessel is the give-way vessel and which is the stand-on vessel.

The windward side is the side the wind is coming from. The leeward side is the downwind side.



If you are on a sailing vessel and you see another sailing vessel approaching, use the following rules:

When each vessel has the wind on a different side, the vessel with the wind on the port side (port tack) is the give-way vessel and must move out of the way of the other vessel. When a vessel is on a port tack, the boom is on the starboard side.



When both vessels have the wind on the same side, the vessel that is windward is the give-way vessel and must move out of the way of the leeward vessel.



If you can't tell which side the wind is on for another sailboat, that vessel is the stand-on vessel and you are the give-way vessel.



Sometimes the vision of the person on the windward sailboat is blocked by the sails. Even when you are on the leeward side and are the stand-on vessel, never assume the windward boat can see you and will give way.

Lookout! - U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rule 5

U.S. Coast Guard Navigation 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."

When do I need a Look-out?

According to Rule 5, all vessels are responsible for maintaining a proper look-out at all times - this includes one-man crews, unmanned crafts, and recreational boats. The term look-out implies watching and listening so that he/she is aware of what is happening around the vessel. The emphasis is on performing the action, not on the person. Still, in all but the smallest vessels, the lookout is expected to be an individual who is not the helmsman and is usually located in the forward part of the boat, away from the distractions and noises of the bridge.

If you are on the boat by yourself, you alone are responsible for keeping a proper lookout.

If anyone else is on the boat with you, appoint another person to help. Tell them to use their eyes and ears to monitor the area around your boat. Watch and listen for other boats, people or debris in the water. Also, watch and listen for changing weather conditions. Your lookout can help you safely navigate around obstacles in the water.

While no specific location on a vessel is prescribed for the lookout, good navigation requires placement at the point best suited for the purpose of hearing and observing the approach of objects likely to be brought into collision with the vessel. The size of the vessel and crew effect the best placement of the lookout, however, the emphasis in every legal decision points to the need for a proper, attentive look-out.

While the use of radar to evaluate the situation is implied in the requirement to use all available means, that is still understood to be secondary to maintaining a look-out by sight and hearing.

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