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Navigation rules on the water are like rules of the road to prevent accidents. With no traffic lines and few signs on the water, boat operators must make smart choices. 

Operators are responsible for:

    •  The safety of all passengers in the boat.
    • The boat’s wake and any damage caused by it.
    • Maintaining a proper lookout and operating at a safe speed for the conditions.
    • Using good seamanship, the foundation of the navigation rules. 


Proper Lookout

Maintain a proper lookout at all times when operating a boat. Avoid collisions by scanning all around the boat for swimmers, other boats, and obstructions. Listening for dangerous situations is also a part of maintaining proper lookout. Ask passengers to assist.

Safe Speed

A safe speed depends on the weather, water conditions, time of day or night, other boat traffic, and the type of boat. Safe speed allows the operator to be in control and take corrective action to avoid a collision. 

Stand-on and Give-way Rules to Avoid Collision

Know the rules of operating for stand-on or give-way for safely passing other boats. Under the rules, the stand-on boat is required to maintain its course and speed. The give-way boat is required to stop or slow down or, when overtaking, to pass the other boat in a safe manner. All operators are always required to avoid a collision in any situation. For more about passing and avoiding collisions refer to the Boating Handbook

Power Boats Head-On (Meeting) Situations

When two boats meet head-on, both boats are required to turn starboard (to the right) to avoid the other. At night, head-on is indicated when both the red and the green running lights are visible at the same time. Find more about lights required on boats in the Boating Handbook

Passing Situations

The boat being passed is the stand-on boat, and must maintain its course and speed while the overtaking (give-way) boat passes. The overtaking boat is always the give-way boat, and it may pass on either side.

Crossing Situation 

All boats have a danger zone from dead ahead (12 o’clock) to 4 o’clock (112.5 degrees) starboard (the right). In a crossing situation, the boat in the danger zone (ahead and to the right) is the stand-on boat. The give-way boat must stop or slow down and let the stand-on boat continue. If the give-way boat does not take the required action in this or any of the other situations, then the stand-on boat operator must be prepared to take action to avoid a collision.

Other Important Rules of the Road

    • A power-driven boat must give way to any sailing boat under sail only (no auxiliary power propulsion). 
    • When a sailboat is overtaking a power driven boat, the power-driven boat is the stand-on boat and maintains course and speed while being overtaken.
    • When a sailboat is approaching a boat at anchor, the power-driven boat remains anchored.
    • In narrow channels, recreational boats under 65 feet long must not hamper the operation of large boats that cannot operate outside the channel. Boats should operate as near to the outer limit of the channel that lies on its starboard (right) side as is safe and practicable. 
    • Boats restricted in their ability to maneuver, such as tugs with barges, ferryboats, commercial fishing boats with nets or lines out, or boats at anchr, are stand-on boats.
    • Boats not under command (usually because of mechanical problems and are unable to steer) or constrained by their draft are stand-on boats.
    • On a river, a boat operating upriver (against the current) gives way to a boat operating downriver (with the current). A boat operating accross the current gives way to boats operating both upriver and downriver.