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Boat Navigation and Right of Way

Campfire Collective
1 October 2018

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.

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

Take a course

Boat in the water with people sitting aboard
Hunter with a bow in tall grass at dusk
Man on yellow ATV riding through dirt tracks
Person on snowmobile riding through snowy trail
Person paddling in white water rapids
Three individuals backpacking across a yellow, grassy plain
Boat in the water with people sitting aboard
Hunter with a bow in tall grass at dusk
Man on yellow ATV riding through dirt tracks
Person on snowmobile riding through snowy trail
Person paddling in white water rapids
Three individuals backpacking across a yellow, grassy plain

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LET'S WORK TOGETHER

 

Go boldly, tell your story. Campfire is building a collective of ambassadors who share a passion for the wild. If you’re an influencer, publisher or sport expert drop us a line. Let’s hook up and inspire others.

CAMPFIRE STORIES

Stay in the loop. Sign up for our newsletter
to get the latest stories from around the fire.

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