Navigation Rules & Regulations

There are rules and regulations for boating, just like driving any other vehicle. These navigation rules can help boaters navigate safely, avoid collisions, and prevent criminal offenses.

In addition to being responsible for themselves and their passengers, boat operators must also be responsible for any damage caused by the boat. 

Our goal is to teach you how to recognize safe boat operation behaviors so that you can minimize the dangers associated with boat operations. Even though boat operators should know all the Inland Rules of the US Coast Guard, this course only covers some of the more important ones.

The Rule of Responsibility

It is the boater’s responsibility to act prudently and reasonably. It is essential to stay alert and active while paying high respect to the weather, the water, the passengers, swimmers, and divers. Unless there is an immediate danger, the boater must determine the safest way to travel and follow the US Coast Guard rules.

Proper Lookout

It is inevitable for the water to have many distractions. Thus, every boat operator must continuously monitor the surroundings, 24/7. A proper lookout must be maintained continuously according to the Navigation Rules. 

As the boat operator, it would be best to ensure that no passengers or equipment can impede your line of sight. Use all available means, including radar and radio (if equipped), to determine if there is a collision risk.

Safe Speed

Boat operators should operate boats at a speed that gives them the time and distance to avoid collisions since travel speed is a crucial factor in the safety of the boat and the passengers. 

According to Rule 6 (a) of the Navigation Rules, “every vessel shall proceed at a safe speed to enable her to take appropriate and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a reasonable distance.” Also, your wake can damage other boats and property. When adjusting your speed, consider the effects your wake might have.

Take these things into account when determining a ‘safe speed’ for your boat:

  • The visibility conditions (fog, mist, rain, darkness)
  • The proximity of any navigational hazards
  • Traffic density, including the type of vessels in the area and their proximity
  • Boat responsiveness (bigger, more powerful boats require a larger turning radius and have a higher top-end speed which requires more time and distance to stop)
  • The wind, water conditions, and currents

Rules for Avoiding Collisions 

Preventing collisions involves precautionary measures (lookouts, radar, etc.), but more importantly, collision avoidance comes from knowing how to handle these situations. Boat operators are responsible for making sure the waterways are safe. Also, taking early and substantial action is crucial to avoid collisions between boats in constant motion.

Every vessel should use every available means appropriate to prevailing circumstances to determine if there’s a risk of collision, according to Rules 7 (a) and (d). When there is any doubt, the risk should be assumed.

Pay attention to these considerations when determining if there is a risk of collision:

  • Seeing no change in the compass bearing of an approaching vessel could mean the approaching vessel is unaware of your vessel. Thus, it is imperative to remain vigilant as a collision risk exists because the other vessel is traveling in your direction. 
  • A noticeable bearing change may be seen when approaching a large vessel or a tow or when approaching a vessel at close range. Even so, there is still a risk of collision.

Rule 8 – Action to Avoid Collision

two boats passing each other

When two watercraft are crossing each other’s path, the vessel on the starboard side should assume the give-way responsibility and alter its course or speed to avoid crossing in front of the other vessel. Such action should be taken as soon as possible, and it should be big enough that other vessels can see it. Also, it would be best to avoid alterations and course as speed. 

The best way to avoid a close-quarters situation is to change course when there’s enough space. When taking action to avoid collision with another vessel, keep these things in mind:

  • Changing the course should be done quickly and be substantial enough to avoid a collision.
  • The speed can be slowed down or turned off entirely by stopping or reversing.
  • The operator should ensure the action worked until the other vessel has been cleared and passed.
  • Passing at a safe distance should be the result.

Rule 13 (a) and (b) – Overtaking a Power-Driven Vessel

Any boat that is overtaking, or passing, another boat should stay out of its path. An approaching vessel is considered to overtake another when it’s 22.5 degrees or more behind the beam of the other vessel, according to Rule 13 (b) of the Navigation Rules. The approaching boat’s operator would only see the stern light of the other vessel and neither of its sidelights at this angle. Operators who aren’t sure whether their boat is overtaking another should assume it is.

orange and red boats passing each other

Rule 16 – Give-Way Vessel 

chart showing a give-way and stand-on vessels

It is advisable for every vessel that’s directed to give way or move for another vessel to do so as early and substantially as possible.

Rule 17 – Stand-On Vessel 

Stand-On vessel and passing a give-way vessel means keeping the same course and speed. If the vessel required to keep out of the way doesn’t take appropriate action, the stand-on vessel may change course to avoid a collision. However, when that happens, the vessel shouldn’t change course for a vessel on its port side. 

NOTE: Give-way vessels must keep out of the way regardless of this rule.

Rule 18 – Responsibilities between Vessels

In Rule 18, you will find out what different types of vessels should do and how they interact with other vessels.

Power-Driven Vessel

All power-driven vessels must yield to any vessels not under command or whose maneuverability has been restricted, or to any sailing and fishing vessels except where Rules 9, 10, and 13 provide otherwise.

Approaching a Sailing Vessel

When a power-driven vessel encounters a sailing vessel, the sailing vessel is always the stand-on vessel (except when a sailing vessel is overtaking). This action must be done early, proactively, and substantially.

Fishing Vessels 

Whenever fishing vessels are underway, they should, as much as possible, stay clear of vessels not under command or restricted in their maneuverability.

Operating in Heavy Traffic

In heavy boat traffic, with many boats going in different directions and speeds, the boat operator must slow down or stop to navigate safely.

Operating in Special Circumstances

Vessels that don’t have a captain or are limited in their maneuverability should, if possible, avoid obstructing the safe passage of a vessel with a draft that demonstrates the signals in Rule 28 of the Navigation Rules. Vessels with restricted drafts should navigate with special care due to their unique condition.

On the water, seaplanes should stay clear of all vessels and don’t get in their way. If seaplanes are at risk of colliding, they should follow these rules.

Wing-in-ground (“WIG”) craft must stay clear of all other vessels on the water when taking off, landing, and flying near the surface. WIG craft that operates on the water surface should follow the same rules as powerboats.

red & white aircraft landing on water

Restricted Visibility 

Rule 19 (a) – (e) of the Navigation Rules gives instructions on maneuvering when there is limited visibility. These rules apply to vessels navigating in or near a restricted visibility area and not in sight of each other.

When visibility is limited (rain, fog, heavy mist, or deep darkness), slow down to a minimum speed so your boat can maneuver if a collision is likely to arise. Likewise, it would be best to reduce your speed to keep on the course unless you are at risk of a collision when you hear sound signals.

For a complete list of navigation rules, check out the “Navigation Rules” document published by the US Coast Guard (COMDTINST 16672.2 Series), available at the US Government printing office or online at



Take My Boat exam on a tablet