Crash course on Navigation Rules
As a boater, you’re required to follow the U.S. Coast Guard navigation rules whether you operate a 10-foot personal watercraft, a 60-foot yacht or an oceangoing freighter.
Following these regulations, or rules of the road, can help you prevent collisions and accidents on the water. With a knowledge of the basic rules and how they apply to your type of boating, you can safely operate near other vessels and inform them of your intentions. You should also be aware that you may face civil and criminal penalties for violating these rules.
What navigational rules you follow depends on your boat’s location inside or outside of the COLREGS (Collision Regulations) Demarcation Line, shown as a purple dashed line on most charts and listed in the Navigation Rules and Regulations Handbook, of which you should keep a copy on your vessel.
- International Rules apply to all vessels on the high seas outside established navigational lines of demarcation, which are usually found at the entrances to harbors, rivers and bays along the coast. International waters are the waters seaward of the demarcation lines depicted on navigational charts.
- Inland Rules apply to inland waters of the U.S. Inland waters means the navigable waters of the U.S. shoreward of the navigational demarcation lines dividing the high seas from harbors, rivers and other inland waters of the US and the waters of the Great Lakes of the U.S. side of the International Boundary.
COLREGS apply on the high seas and all connected waters navigable by seagoing vessels. Where the high seas and inland waters merge, a magenta-colored demarcation line is shown on charts to determine applicability of the rules.
A skipper’s responsibilities
Boating, like driving and flying, has rules to ensure your safety and survival. The skipper is responsible for understanding and following these rules.
Far too many boaters do not fully understand these rules, their requirements, and the actions needed on the water, such as
- when to hold course and speed
- when and how to give way
- how to signal another vessel
- what navigation lights to display on your vessel
- how to interpret other vessels’ lights that you see
Before departing, a skipper should follow a simple pre-cruise checklist:
- Check the weather forecast for the time and area for the cruise.
- File a float plan with a responsible person. It should include the names and contact information for everyone on board.
- Inform the crew about appropriate clothing for the type of boat and forecast weather conditions before the actual outing.
- Ensure you have adequate food, potable water and fuel for the outing. Check with crew ahead of time for any special medical considerations or dietary needs.
The skipper should provide a crew and passenger briefing before leaving the dock. This includes ensuring everyone has a properly fitted life jacket and understands the rules for wearing one.
During the briefing, the skipper should show the location and explain the proper use of all safety equipment. Have a vessel safety check performed on the boat to ensure that it has proper safety equipment.
Before leaving the dock, the skipper should explain the procedures and crew responsibilities for emergencies, such as operating the boat, using VHF radio to call for help, and using signaling equipment (flares, horns, etc.). In case of an emergency like a boat fire, grounding or man overboard, everyone should have an assigned task commensurate with his or her skills.
General rule of responsibility
Because rules may not cover every possible risk of collision, the general rule of responsibility requires everyone on board who has anything to do with the operation of the vessel, not just the skipper, to do everything possible to avoid collision, including departing from the rules if that becomes necessary.
Remember: Your first responsibility is to avoid collision.
To learn more about the rules of the road, take our Rules of the Road: A Practical Approach seminar.
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Learn to boat with confidence by taking the full Boat Handling course online from America’s Boating Club.