Navigation Rules FAQ
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Navigation Rules FAQ

September 9, 2019

What are the Navigation Rules? The Nav Rules, much like the rules of the road for public roadways, establish a consistent way for vessels to interact with each other on the waterways. What is the U.S. Aids to Navigation System or ATONS? ATONS is a system maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard consisting of visual, audible, and electronic signals, designed to assist the prudent mariner in the process of navigation. It does not identify every shoal or obstruction to navigation that exists in the navigable waters of the United States, but it does provide reasonable marking of marine features as resources permit. What vessels are required to comply with the Nav Rules? According to Rule 1 – Application, all vessels are required to follow the Navigation Rules. The word “vessel” is defined to include every description of watercraft, including non-displacement craft, wing-in-ground craft, and sea planes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water. Courts have interpreted “transportation” to include not only passengers, but also goods and services. The Nav Rules address vessels, not who or what is controlling them. Is there an overriding Nav Rule that takes precedence over others? No, but there is a hierarchy for various situations, and all Rules are focused on keeping vessels from colliding with each other. So each boater needs to know that he or she has a responsibility. Rule 2 – Responsibility, states: In construing and complying with these Rules, due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision, and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger. Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master, or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules, or of the neglect of any precaution, which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case. Neglect, among other things, could be not maintaining a proper look-out, use of improper speed, not taking the appropriate actions to determine and avoid collision, or ignoring a boat operator’s responsibilities under the Rules. Who has the right-of-way on the water? No one has the right-of-way unless Rule 9 applies. Good seamanship suggests that operators should know the limitations of the vessels involved to avoid immediate danger. Power-driven vessels, which are defined as any vessel propelled by machinery, regardless of whether the machinery is being used, are to keep out of the way and, depending on circumstances, either give-way, meaning move aside or slow down, or stand-on, meaning not change course with respect to vessels not under command or restricted in their ability to maneuver, sailing vessels, or vessels engaged in fishing. Similarly, vessels should avoid impeding the safe passage of a vessel constrained by her draft, or navigating a narrow channel or traffic separation scheme. Where do kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards fit into the Nav Rules? They must also follow the Nav Rules as they are also vessels. Kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, and other such human-propelled watercraft are considered to be “vessels under oars.” What would be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case, determines whether a vessel under oars is the give-way vessel, meaning it must slow down or move aside when approaching another watercraft, or the stand-on vessel, meaning it must maintain its course — and the notion that they are less able than most other vessels. What is the safe speed or passing distance for vessels? When crossing, meeting, or overtaking another vessel, as the boat operator, you must keep your vessel well clear of the other vessel. Similarly, the distance required for a vessel to take action to avoid collision will vary. However, it should enable doing so at a safe speed to avoid a collision. Any alteration of course or speed shall be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel. Such alterations shall be taken early enough and be stopped within an appropriate distance to allow sufficient sea room for the safe passage of the other vessel at a safe speed. The alternation will be completed so that the other vessel is able to take proper and effective action to avoid a collision. When do I need a look-out? All vessels are responsible for maintaining a proper look-out at all times. This includes one-man crews and recreational boats. The term “look-out” implies watching and listening to be aware of what is happening around the vessel. The emphasis is on performing the action, not on the person. What are the regulations concerning wake effects, wake damage, and responsibility? Recreational vessels are required to operate in a prudent manner that does not endanger life, limb, or property. There may also be state or local laws, which specifically address “wake” for the waters in question. The Nav Rules do not exonerate any vessel from the consequences of neglect, which, among other things, could be unsafe speeds, improper look-out, or ignoring prescribed responsibilities under the Nav Rules. What are the requirements of lights for recreational vessels underway between sunset and sunrise? Power-driven vessels of less than 12 meters or 39.4 feet in length and sailboats must at a minimum exhibit a white light in the stern of the boat and sidelights comprised of a green light on the right-hand or starboard side of the vessel and a red light on the left-hand or port side of the vessel. Power-driven vessels are required to exhibit a white mast-head light in addition to the stern and sidelights. Human-propelled watercraft must display or have immediately accessible and all-around white light capable of being used in ample time to warn others of danger and not negatively impact the navigation of other vessels. Can I use decorative lights, strobes, or other high intensity or specialty lights to be more visible at night? Standard lights are displayed aboard all vessels to help others to identify them and to better understand their maneuvering characteristics or possibly distress. The use of any lights other than the lights prescribed by the Rules is discouraged, because the use of decorative lights, strobes, or other high intensity or specialty lighting could confuse, rather than make you more visible, obfuscate your navigation lights, hinder a proper look-out, and be mistaken for other lights used as aids to navigation by law enforcement or public safety vessels. Am I required to carry a copy of the Nav Rules? The operator of each self-propelled vessel 12 meters or 39.4 feet or more in length shall carry onboard and maintain for ready reference a copy of the Rules. Where can I get a copy of the Nav Rules? A free electronic copy can be obtained by visiting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Coast Guard “Navigation Center” website at and clicking on the “Nav Rules” tab at top of the homepage. A printed version can be obtained from the U.S. Government Bookstore at


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  • Reply Tariq Shah August 30, 2019 at 4:04 am

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