Navigation Rules: What you need to know
Driving a boat is just like driving a car, right? I mean, you stop when you’re supposed to stop, go when you’re supposed to go….all while imagining stop signs and green lights, right? Think again. Boating navigation is completely different than on road vehicle navigation. And no, I’m not talking about an English woman telling you what next left you need to take on your GPS.
If you haven’t already purchased a book approved by the U.S. Coast Guard on boat navigation, then it may be wise to invest in one and leave it on your boat. However, you can also find these same rules online at the U.S. Coast Guard’s website, here. Boating navigation classes should also be considered for new and experienced boaters, if you have not already taken one. Studies have shown that 80% of boaters who are involved in a boat collision have never taken a boat safety course. While it can’t guarantee that you’ll never be in a bad situation, it can guarantee that you’ll know the rules to navigating a boat. Boat navigation is much more complex than just allowing a boat to pass you or just keeping a steady speed. It’s best to know the actual ‘Rules of the Road’ before setting sail in that nice shiny vessel. A collision can happen in an instant – be safe and know the rules!
First, let’s talk about vessel priorities. There are so many different types of boats on the water, so this is a very important rule to know by heart! In general, the priority of vessels on the water is as follows. The highest priority goes to vessels that are not in direct control or have limited ability to maneuver. Barges come to mind. The second priority goes to working boats because well, this is silly, because they are working. Boats involved in fishing are third priority, and last but not least, sailboats and powerboats. Yes, sailboats are considered powerboats whether their sails are up or not. More on that later.
Right of way is a biggie when it comes to navigation. You’ll eventually find yourself in a situation where everything you’ve learned about boat right of ways becomes completely garbled. That’s why it is good to know and be comfortable in knowing the navigation rules of the water. There will always be situations that will require you to determine who has the right of way, you or the other boat(s). The good thing is, that neither one of you have the right away if you are simply approaching one another head on. You can pass one another on either side, but you should always try to pass port to port.
Which side is port? Left. Remember, both port and left are four letter words.
Boat right of way simplicity changes when boats begin approaching each other at an angle, you’ll find yourself in a more complex situation. When approaching boats on an angle, the boat on the other vessel’s starboard usually has the right of way. But that’s not all. You’ll need to remember which vessels have top priority or, if it is a larger vessel that won’t allow easy maneuverability or cannot slow its speed quickly, you’ll need to allow them to go first. Another complex example (though a bit easier to remember): if you are in a powerboat and you find yourself near a sailboat under sail power alone, the sailboat has the right of way. In all situations, if someone isn’t paying attention…do whatever you need to do to avoid a collision.
Navigation light and sound signals are another must have. While navigation lights and horns/whistles are not required on all types of vessels, it is still something to consider. Horns and whistles come in quite handy when in foggy situations, down pours, or other low visibility times. Sound and light signals allow you to communicate with other boaters on your intentions or to warn other boaters of potential danger. Again, with all navigation rules, you should know when to properly use them. They are not to be used at all times or for the wrong reasons. Personal Water crafts are the only vessels that don’t require navigation lights. All other vessels must have some type of light on them. Be sure to check with your local and state government to see exactly what types of navigation signals (lights and sounds) are required of your vessel. And don’t worry, we check all of our boats, new and used, to make sure you have all the proper lights and they’re in good working condition.
Purchasing navigational charts of the specific waterways that you travel is another good safety precaution when it comes to navigation. Make sure you store them in a safe and dry area on your boat. Laminating them or keeping them in plastic bags is a good way to ensure that they don’t get wet. Knowing the waterways is one of the greatest things you can do to help yourself while boating. Memorizing landmarks, shallow areas, dangerous submerged objects, and safe channel markers are not required, but are a wise thing to do. Also, knowing where local marinas, channels, ports and other navigable waterways are can be extremely helpful should you find yourself in a dire situation or lost in a particular area.
Remember, channel 16 is the universal emergency channel for your VHF marine radio.
Speaking of getting lost, carrying a compass, GPS, or your handy dandy waterway chart (has mentioned above) will allow you to feel more comfortable should you find yourself off course. Navigation doesn’t just mean knowing how to properly steer a vessel or knowing who has the right of way – navigation also means knowing where you are at all times, and if you find yourself in a situation where you’re lost, you’ll have the ability to maneuver your way back to a safe haven.
The few rules mentioned above are simply scratching the surface of navigational rules when it comes to boating. I urge every single boater to take a navigation safety course or to at least study the navigation rules to boating before getting onto (or back onto) the water. Do yourself a favor and know the rules. And when you think you really know them, study again! As with driving a car, you know the rules and can naturally react in a situation. You should have the same mindset and ability when navigating your boat – it just comes naturally.