Navigation Rules For Boating and Sailing | SI Yachts

Navigation Rules For Boating and Sailing

Written By: Frank Bongiorno
Dec 16, 2019

Navigation Rules for Boating and Sailing

Driving a boat, whether power or sail, can be daunting to beginning boaters. It's only with experience that we are able to build confidence, but having a full understanding of the navigational rules of the waterways will help every boater anticipate the actions of others and respond accordingly. Boating safety is the most important aspect of being a responsible boat owner.

Many states now require a Boating Safety ID Card that requires the completion of an approved boater's safety course. These classes are great for first-time boat owners and can give you an open forum to ask questions to trained instructors. The Bureau of Transportation reports that over 4,000 boating accidents occurred last year. How many of those could have been avoided?

Florida Safety Courses:

New York Boating Education Courses: also provides a complete breakdown by state of the safety courses available:


Simple Rules to Remember That Can Make Navigation Safer and Easier

Simple Navigation Rules

One of the most recurring questions from new boaters is, "Do I stay on the right hand side like driving a car?" In an inland waterway situation where two boats are about to meet head on, each of them is responsible for moving their own vessel out of the way. Most generally, this means veering off to the right and providing safe distance between the other vessel. While there are a lot of scenarios that can arise when boating, these three below are the most common.

The "Give-Way Vessel" refers to the boat that wishes to overtake another boat. The boat being overtaken is referred to as the "Stand-On Vessel".

Boat Encounter Scenarios


The U.S. Coast Guard has put together a complete list of explanations as to exactly what each boater should do in each scenario. The main takeaway from the document is to be safe, sensible, and use precaution for all vessels around you.

Amalgamated International & U.S. Inland Navigation Rules

Here are a few of the main rules listed in the navigational guide:

  • All boats should proceed in the appropriate traffic lane for the general flow of that traffic, all while keeping a safe distance and separation from other vehicles.
  • Don't anchor your boat in the flow of traffic or the separation zone.
  • The more maneuverable boat should take more precaution to avoid less maneuverable boats such as sailboats, large commercial vessels, etc.
  • If you're unsure that another boat is trying to overtake you, assume they are, and act accordingly.
  • Drive at safe speeds, know your speed limits.
  • Every vessel must comply with having the appropriate lights from sunset to sunrise.
  • When a powerboat and a sailboat meet head-on, the powerboat is the give-way vessel and must take action to avoid the sailboat. The sailboat is the Stand-On vessel and should continue its course and speed.

Reading the entire list of rules periodically is a great way to refresh your memory on what to do in every scenario.

When sailing, if two sailboats are meeting head-on, the windward boat gives way to the leeward boat on the same tack, whether sailing upwind or downwind.

Another area of confusion among new boaters is the use of navigational aids on the water. This refers to the different colored and shaped signs you see mainly in the intracoastal waterways, lakes, and rivers. The starboard side aids are even numbered and red, while the port side aids are green and have odd numbers. Below is a short guide to the most common aids seen on the water, however, printing out the complete guide to keep handy is beneficial.

Link (PDF): U.S.C.G. Aids To Navigation System (Except Western Rivers)


Port and Starboard Markers

Port and Starboard Markers

graphics provided by Boat U.S.

The port side odd numbered navigational aids are always green and on your left side when traveling upstream. You may notice that the numbers on the markers increase as you continue upstream. On the starboard side are even numbered aids colored red. These makers are always on your right and will increase in number as you head upstream.

Additionally, regulatory markers are directional or warning signs, similar to those you may see when driving on the roads. Some signs warn you about decreasing your wake, while others may mark some hidden, underwater danger.


Boating Regulatory Markers

Boating Regulatory Markers

One of the most important pieces of equipment you will have on board really doesn't have much to do with navigation. But, it can be helpful if you find yourself lost. Every vessel should have a VHF radio for communication with other boats, the shore, emergency services, bridges, etc. The U.S. Coast Guard even continually sends out severe weather warnings, especially important in the summer when strong winds can come out of nowhere.


VHF Channels for Boaters

VHF Channels for Boaters

We hope these resources will assist you in gaining confidence on the water when boating. We highly recommend attending training sessions at approved locations and spending time at boat show seminars. These are great ways to ask questions and learn from seasoned boaters.

Other resources include:

Florida Atlantic University Boater's Guide (PDF)
Historical Navigation Aids In The Keys
Yacht Maintenance Tips
SI Yachts Scholarship

Written by Frank Bongiorno

Also written by Frank:
Swimming Safety for Kids When Boating
Proper Boat and Yacht Maintenance Tips