Becoming a boat owner should lead to fun and exciting adventures on water. The key to keeping those adventures safe is not just being registered, insured, and well stocked with supplies; it is also learning all you can about boat safety and following the motto – Know Before You Go.

The U.S. Coast Guard has a plethora of information available; which covers everything a boater needs to know and have on board to ensure everyone who is on board has a safe and satisfying outing. There are boating safety courses which cover many topics to prepare the operator for almost anything. The topic of NAVIGATION is one worth taking extra time to learn as much as possible, as this knowledge will be a lifelong asset.

When learning about navigating a boat, it is imperative to understand what lies ahead - literally – as it is the navigational tools one has on board that will help make sure there are no surprises beneath the water’s surface which may not visible to the naked eye; and to avoid any unwelcomed surprises above the surface such as markers, buoys, other boats, and more.

According to the USCG it is vital to carry paper nautical charts and maps on board. Charts show what the waterway looks like from the air – buoys, beacons, bridges, landmarks and from below - how deep the water is, land formations, along with other important information. The maps show the land along the waterways. When plotting a course, it is the nautical charts that should be utilized.

The USCG still believes that every boater should have the paper charts and maps; the tried and true versions that have been helping sailors find their way around the world. Gadgets can malfunction, as long as boat owners make sure they have updated charts and maps on board they should be able to stay on course. Charts and maps are easily obtainable online.

Marine GPS

Modern technology is an ever growing part of the boating world. There are gadgets available that have also become an essential part of any vessels navigational tools such as the marine GPS. A regular automobile GPS will work, but the model made for boats offers the bells and whistles that boaters use, such as:

  • The ability to know the depth of the water
  • Predicting tides
  • Ability to give warnings of obstacles in the path of the vessel
  • Not only the “You are Here” feature but will remember the courses you take and will show you the way next time with the navigate to track feature
  • Fish finder options
  • Compass and charts stored within the gadget that aids when plotting a navigational course
  • Accurate speed, distance/time to way point and course made good readouts, as well as a digital compass
  • Able to see the course being taken in case visibility is impaired due to nightfall, fog or bad weather
  • Man Overboard feature that with just a touch of a button the operator can mark the position of the victim who is in the water
  • Depending on the price, there are those models that can receive photographs and radar in real-time of an impending storm many miles away

While checking out the GPS available to boaters, it may be a good idea to also investigate a two-way radio communication system, as this is also important to the navigational success of an outing. There are many times a cell phone may not have service out on the water and in an emergency, communication with help is not something one would likely be willing to give up.

Whether boating during the day or at night, the “Rules of the Road” is the set of rules a boat operator is expected to know as determined by water authorities; and if for some reason one finds the USCG pulling up alongside or preparing to board their vessel, a question they may be prepared to answer is if they have their copy on board. Luckily copies are available online and can be printed at home.

Learning the "Rules of the Road" means learning to be courteous while on the water, be willing to give way to other vessels and following directions. To be sure, you will not be the only thing on or in the water. There are buoys, markers, and other boaters. Collisions are the number one type of accident on the water. These rules are there to aid in the steering and controlling of a boat so as to avoid accidents with other boats or other objects.

The basic rules are as follows:

Right of Way at Sea

1. Know the "Rules of the Road" – except where speed is restricted maintain a safe speed depending on weather, visibility, how many other boats are in the area, how your boat handles; always have a lookout - a person to keep watch from every direction; and always do your best to avoid a collision – know which vessel is the “give way” and which is the “stand on” and know what actions to take for which. Remember, if you see the red light on a vessel, you are on the "give way" vessel and are expected to take action while the "stand on" vessel will remain on course. If you see a green and red light, you are seeing an oncoming boat and you should prepare to pass on the port side. One short blast on your horn will alert them you are passing and their one short blast returned, acknowledges the actions.

2. Know the Markers – buoys float on top of the water, some have lights and some do not. Beacons are permanently attached to the bottom of the body of water. Beacons with lights are referred to as “lights” if no light they are called “daybeacon.” Both are used to provide navigational information depending on the shape, color, light, and if it has a signal or not.

Navigational Markers

3. Lateral and Non-Lateral Aids - used for channels and lets boaters know what route is to be followed. Non-Lateral Aids are the warning, regulatory and informational signs for on-the-water. These are the street signs for water and should be learned just as when a driver learns the signs to drive on the street.

Navigational Lights at Night

4. Boating at Night – even waters well-traveled can look unfamiliar at night. It can be difficult to distinguish shore lights from lights on other boats since visual depth perception is less. All vessels are required to have their navigational lights on from sundown to sunup and when visibility is hampered. All operators must make sure their navigational lights are in good working order and are positioned correctly on the vessel as according to federal regulations. Slow down, quiet down so to hear other vessels if need be, and know what the combinations of lights mean to you, the operator of the boat.

5. Variation to the Aids to Navigation Rules – depends on what waterway you are on. There is “Western Rivers Marking Systems,” and “The Intracoastal Waterways.” Do some homework to find out more information on these variations.

6. Special Situations – such as bridges, draw bridges, controlled access areas, locks, low-head dams.

Wear It

7. Always Wear Your Life Jacket – the number one cause of on-the-water fatalities is drowning and the only hope to prevent a drowning is by wearing a life jacket.

It is the responsibility of the operator to know the navigational “Rules of the Road,” and in turn know and have the navigational aids on board to ensure the safety of all passengers and of those boats in the area.

The USCG has made it as easily accessible as possible for boaters to know these rules, and learn the aids with all the information that is made available. The operator can keep his family, friends, and property safe and the boat insurance company happy by following these guidelines.

Navigational Aids