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Operating Procedures

Navigation Rules

The Navigation Rules establish actions to be taken by vessels to avoid collision. The Rules are divided into two parts, INLAND and INTERNATIONAL. Inland Rules apply to vessels operating inside the line of demarcation while International apply outside. Demarcation lines are printed on most navigational charts and are published in the Navigation Rules. Click here for in depth Navigation Rules.

The operator of a vessel 39.4 feet/12 meters or greater is responsible for having on board and maintaining a copy of the Inland navigation rules. The following diagrams describe the whistle signals and action to be taken by vessels in a crossing, meeting or overtaking situation while operating in inland waters. These are basic examples, for further information consult the "NAVIGATION RULES" International Inland (Commandant Instruction M16672.2 Series)

Copies of the rules may be obtained from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954 tel. (202) 512-1800

Crossing Situations
Illustration of a crossing situation in which the give-way vessel is changing its route to go behind the stern of the stand-on vessel.
Give-way Vessel
...give way 1 short blast
(1 sec.)
Stand-on Vessel
...hold course and speed
1 short blast (1 sec.)
Meeting Head-On or Nearly So Situations
Illustration of two boats that are about to meet head on.  Both boats move to their starboard side, passing portside to portside to avoid a collision.
Vessels generally pass portside to portside. However, vessels may pass starboard to starboard if proper signals are given.
Illustration of two boats that are about to meet head on.  After giving proper signals, the give-way vessel moves to its port side, while the stand-on vessel continues its course.  The two boats thus pass starboard to starboard.
Overtaking Situations
Illustration of an overtaking situation in which the give-way vessel moves to its port side, passing the other boat starboard-to-port. Stand-on Vessel
Illustration of an overtaking situation in which the give-way vessel moves to its starboard side, passing the other boat port-to-starboard.
Give-way Vessel
Overtaking (keep clear)
Aids to Navigation

Aids to Navigation are placed along coasts and navigable waters as guides to mark safe water and to assist mariners in determining their position in relation to land and hidden dangers. Each aid to navigation is used to provide specific information.

Several aids to navigation are usually used together to form a local aid to navigation system that helps the mariner follow natural and improved channels. Such aids to navigation also provide a continuous system of charted marks for coastal piloting. Individual aids to navigation are used to mark landfall from seaward, and to mark isolated dangers.

Lateral markers are buoys or beacons that indicate the port and starboard sides of a route to be followed. Virtually all U.S. lateral marks follow the traditional 3R rule of "red, right, returning". This means, when returning from sea, keep red marks on the right-hand (starboard) side of the vessel.

Mariners must NOT rely on buoys alone for determining their position. Storms and wave action can cause buoys to move.

Learn more about Aids to Navigation here.

Nautical Charts

One of the most important tools used by boaters for planning trips and safely navigating waterways are Nautical Charts. Nautical Charts show the nature and shape of the coast, depths of water, general configuration and character of the bottom, prominent landmarks, port facilities, aids to navigation, marine hazards, and other pertinent information. Changes brought about by people and nature require that nautical charts be constantly maintained and updated to aid safe navigation. To meet the needs of the boating public, the National Ocean Service (NOS) produces a variety of nautical charts and chart products. The date of a nautical chart is critical to the boater. Only up-to-date charts should be used for navigation. Nautical charts vary in scale and format. For coastal navigation, for instance, boaters should use the largest chart scale available. Chart updating information can be obtained from "Local Notice to Mariners" published by the U.S. Coast Guard.

To view up to date nautical charts online, and find other related resources, click here.

NOS nautical charts may be purchased either directly by mail from the NOS Distribution Branch or through an authorized agent. There are more than 1,700 nautical chart agents that sell NOS charts. Click here to find your closest nautical chart sales agent.

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