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.

The Navigations Rules are published by the U. S. Government Printing Office, and are available in any boating supply store. Every boat owner should have a copy, but it is mandatory that a copy be kept aboard all vessels over 12 meters (39.4 feet) in length.

The Rules generally referenced in this course are Inland Rules, unless otherwise noted. There are small but important differences between Inland and International Rules depending on where you are operating your boat. It is your responsibility to know the Navigation Rules for your boating area.

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.

Rules 2(a) and 2(b) – 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. Departure from Rules may be necessary in situations when doing so is the safest option.

Rule 5 – Look-out

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.

Rule 6(a) – 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 7(a) and 7(b) Risk of Collision

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

When two watercraft are crossing each other’s path, the vessel on the port side (meaning the vessel that has the other vessel on its 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 9 – Narrow Channels

First and foremost, you have to avoid larger vessels that can only travel in a channel. Even if your vessel is operating under the rules otherwise, you must give way to a boat that could potentially run aground or get into a collision if they left the channel.

Try to operate on the edge of the channel towards the starboard side. Be extra cautious if you come to a bend in the waterway and can’t see traffic coming towards you. You may sound one prolonged blast as a warning to traffic headed your way.

When operating in a narrow channel or fairway, downbound vessels (vessels going downstream) have priority when passing through bridges and other narrow areas. The downbound vessel shall propose the manner and place of passage and shall initiate the maneuvering signals between itself and any upbound vessel.

Rule 13 – Overtaking

orange and red boats passing each other

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. This rule applies even if the overtaking vessel is propelled by wind, oars, or rubber band paddlewheel.

Rule 14(a), 14(b) and 14(c) Head-on Situation

chart of two passing boats

The main intention of these rules is to establish a protocol for situations where two power-driven vessels are on a collision course. Both vessels should move to the starboard (right), which would cause them to pass each other on the port (left) side, minimizing the risk of collision. If there’s any uncertainty about a head-on situation, vessels should assume it exists and take appropriate action.

Rule 15(a) Crossing Situation

chart showing a give-way and stand-on vessels

In a crossing situation, the vessel on the left (the vessel which has the other vessel on her starboard side) must keep out of the way, and if circumstances permit avoid crossing in front of the the other vessel.

Rule 16 – Give-Way Vessel 

This rule emphasizes the responsibility of the ‘give-way’ vessel – the vessel directed to keep clear of another (the ‘stand-on’ vessel). It should make a clear, noticeable action to avoid the other vessel as early as possible. By doing so, it gives the stand-on vessel confidence that appropriate action is being taken and reduces the risk of collision.

Rule 17 – Stand-On Vessel 

This rule primarily guides the actions of the ‘stand-on’ vessel, the vessel which should maintain its course and speed. However, it also states that if it becomes apparent that the ‘give-way’ vessel (the vessel required to avoid the stand-on vessel) is not taking appropriate action, the stand-on vessel may take evasive action to avoid a collision. It further states that the stand-on vessel should not alter course to port if it can be avoided, particularly in a crossing situation. Nonetheless, the responsibility of the give-way vessel to avoid the stand-on vessel is not diminished by this rule.

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

Rule 18(a-d) – Responsibilities between Vessels

These rules establish a hierarchy of responsibility, with power-driven vessels generally having to give way to other types of vessels, and vessels constrained by their draft having certain rights over others, if circumstances allow. All power-driven vessels must yield to any vessels not under command or whose maneuverability has been restricted, to any sailing, and any vessel engaged in fishing except where Rules 9, 10, and 13 provide otherwise.

The hierarchy is as follows (each type of vessel gives way to those listed below it):

  • Power-driven vessel gives way to;
  • A sailing vessel gives way to;
  • A vessel engaged in fishing when underway gives way to;
  • A vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver or a vessel not under command

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.

Rule 19 (a-e) – Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility

Rule 19 provides guidance for navigating in restricted visibility, emphasizing the importance of safety, caution, and careful maneuvering. It specifies that all vessels must navigate at a safe speed and be prepared to take avoidance maneuvers based on information from radar and other sources.

Operating a boat at times of restricted visibility requires extra concentration by the operator and the lookout. You must operate your vessel at a safe speed, giving you enough time to react to a situation and avoid a collision.

  • Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed and navigate with extreme caution
  • Have engines ready for immediate maneuvering – including reverse
  • Don’t rely on radar or other electronic imaging alone – use your built in senses at all times
  • Take avoiding actions early and provide ample time for the other vessels to maneuver
  • Avoid sharp turns if being overtaken
  • If you are in doubt, always reduce your speed

For example, when you hear another vessel’s fog signal and you cannot rule out that a possible collision exists, you must reduce your speed to the minimum necessary to maintain your course. In other words, if you are unsure of the other vessel’s intentions in fog, you must slow to idle speed until any potential danger has passed.

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

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