Navigation Rules


Most boating accidents are the result of a collision, either between two vessels, or between a vessel and a fixed or submerged object. For this reason, boat operators are cautioned to follow the established Navigation Rules, especially maintaining a proper lookout and safe speed. Remember the three basic rules of navigation:

  1. Practice Good Seamanship – it is the responsibility of every vessel or PWC operator to take all necessary action to avoid collisions. Such action should be taken in ample time to avoid a collision and at a safe distance from other vessels.
  2. Keep a Proper Lookout – every operator must keep a proper lookout using both sight and hearing at all times. Watch and listen for other vessels, radio communications, navigation hazards, and others involved in water activities.
  3. Maintain a Safe Speed – safe speed will vary depending upon conditions such as wind, water conditions, navigation hazards, visibility, surrounding vessel traffic, and the maneuverability of your vessel.

The boat operator is responsible for knowing and following all of the applicable navigational rules. Copies of the rules may be obtained from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402, 202-512-1800. The stock number is 050-012-00192-8. Or on the web.

  • Right Side = Starboard
  • Left Side = Port

Head-on (bow to bow)

When two power-driven vessels are meeting head-on or nearly head-on, each shall alter her course to starboard (right) so that each shall pass on the port side of the other. A head-on situation exists when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead and by night she could see the masthead lights of the other in a line or nearly in a line or both sidelights.

Give-way and Stand-on Vessels

Give-way and Stand-on is the terminology used to describe the appropriate action of each vessel in crossing and passing situations.

The “give-way” vessel is the vessel that must take early and substantial action to keep well clear of another vessel.

The “stand-on” vessel shall maintain course and speed unless it becomes apparent that the vessel required to keep out of the way (the “give-way” vessel) is not taking the appropriate action. If the stand-on vessel must take action to avoid a collision, it must avoid turning to port for a vessel on her port side.

An action taken to avoid a collision needs to be positive, made in ample time and large enough to be apparent to the other vessel. If necessary to avoid a collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel must slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing engines.

In crossing situations, power boats must giveway to sailing vessels under sail regardless of the angle the power-driven vessel approaches the sailing vessel.



When two power-driven vessels are crossing, the vessel which has the other on her starboard side shall give way and keep out of the way and avoid crossing ahead (in front) of the other vessel.

When taking action to stay out of the way, make it early, substantial and well clear of the other boat. Avoid making a succession of small alterations of course or speed. If you are directed by the Rules to stay out of the way, then make your turn large and obvious so as to be readily apparent to another vessel both visually or by radar. This is especially true at night, when the only visual indication of your course change is the alteration of your boat’s lights.



Any vessel overtaking any other shall give-way and keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken.

When a vessel is in any doubt as to whether it is overtaking another, it shall assume that this is the case and act accordingly.

If you are being overtaken (passed), you are the stand-on vessel and should maintain your course and speed. The vessel overtaking you should notify an intent to pass by making an appropriate sound signal. One short blast of the horn or whistle means “I intend to overtake you on your starboard side” and 2-short blasts means “I intend to overtake you on your port side”.

When two sailing vessels are approaching one another in a crossing situation, one of them shall keep out of the way of the other as follows:

  • When each has the wind on a different side, the vessel which has the wind on the port side shall keep out of the way of the other;
  • When both have the wind on the same side, the vessel which is to windward shall keep out of the way of the vessel which is to leeward; and
  • If a vessel with the wind on the port side sees a vessel to windward and cannot determine with certainty whether the other vessel has the wind on the port or on the starboard side, she shall keep out of the way of the other.

Windward side is deemed to be the side opposite to that on which the main-sail is carried.

Restricted Visibility

The following rule applies to vessels not in sight of one another when navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility:

Proceed at a safe speed adapted to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility. A power-driven vessel shall have engines ready for immediate maneuver.

Except where it has been determined that a risk of collisions does not exist, every vessel which hears apparently forward of her beam the fog signal of another vessel, or which cannot avoid a close-quarter situation with another vessel forward of her beam, shall reduce her speed to the minimum at which she can be kept on course. She shall if necessary take all way off (slow down or stop) and in any event, navigate with extreme caution until danger of collision is over.

Sound Signals for Restricted Visibility

  • Whistle means any sound producing device capable of producing a blast.
  • Short Blast = a blast of about 1 second.
  • Prolonged Blast = a blast of from 4-6 seconds’ duration.

In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night, the following sound signals shall be made:

  • A power-driven vessel making way through the water — one prolonged blast at least once every 2 minutes.
  • A power-driven vessel underway but stopped and making no way through the water shall sound at intervals of not more than 2 minutes two prolonged blasts in succession with an interval of about 2 seconds between them.
  • A sailing vessel, whether underway or at anchor, shall sound one-prolonged blast followed by two-short blast at least once every 2 minutes.

Responsibility Between Vessels

Except where otherwise required:

A power-driven vessel shall keep out of the way of:

  • A vessel not under command;
  • A vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver, such as a tug boat or deepdraft freighter;
  • A vessel engaged in (commercial) fishing;
  • A sailing vessel.

A sailing vessel shall keep out of the way of:

  • A vessel not under command;
  • A vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver, such as a tug boat or deepdraft freighter;
  • A vessel engaged in commercial fishing.

Departure From Regulations to Avoid Immediate Danger

At times it may be necessary to depart from these rules in order to avoid immediate danger. When, from any cause the vessel required to keep its course and speed finds itself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, the operator shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision. This action does not relieve the give-way vessel of its obligation to keep out of the way. The give-way vessel is that vessel required to take early and substantial action to keep well away from other vessels by stopping, slowing or changing course.

Narrow Channels

In narrow channels, the operator of every vessel shall, when it is safe and practicable, keep to that side of the fairway or mid-channel which lies on the right side of such vessel. The operator of a vessel under 65.6 feet in length underway, fishing or at anchor in narrow channels shall not interfere with the passage of large, deepdraft vessels that can safely navigate only inside such channels.