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Rules of the Road

Right of Way Rules
Whenever you meet another boat, it’s like approaching an unmarked intersection in your car. Knowing a few, simple right of way rules will help you avoid a collision. Just as motorists must know what to do when approaching a four way stop, every crossing situation at sea is like approaching an unmarked intersection.

Because there are so many different types of boats and styles of boating, it is important to know what to expect when you come upon another vessel.

"Vessels" are anything that floats on the water that
is used, or is capable of being used as a means of transportation on water. A log, a bathtub and many other things could be considered a vessel under the Navigation Rules. The Navigation Rules distinguish one vessel from another by both its design, and by its actions. This section covers maneuvering rules only.

There are other navigation rules that you are required to know. Sound Rules are covered under the Sound Signaling Equipment section. Light Rules are covered under the Navigation Light Equipment section.

The Rules of the Road are published by the U. S. Government Printing Office, and are available in any boating supply stores. Every boat owner should have a copy, but they are mandatory to be kept on vessels over
12 meters (39.4 feet) in length.

The Rules generally used in this course are Inland Rules, unless otherwise noted. There are small but important differences in the Rules depending on where you are operating your boat. It is your responsibility to know the Navigation Rules for your boating area.

  • International Rules - Apply to all vessels upon the high seas and in all waters connected to them that are navigable by seagoing vessels.
  • Inland Rules - Apply to all vessels upon the inland waters of the United States, and to vessels of the United States on the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes to the extent that there is no conflict with Canadian law. Certain inland waterways may have specific provisions that apply to certain vessels. These areas are:

    • Great Lakes - Includes the Great Lakes and their connecting and tributary waters including the Calumet River as far as the Thomas J. O'Brien Lock and Controlling Works (between mile 326 and 327), the Chicago River as far as the east side of the Ashland Avenue Bridge (between mile 321 and 322), and the Saint Lawrence River as far east as the lower exit of Saint Lambert Lock..
    • Western Rivers - Includes the Mississippi River, its tributaries, South Pass, and Southwest Pass, to the navigational demarcation lines dividing the high seas from harbors, rivers, and other inland waters of the United States, and the Port Allen-Morgan City Alternate Route, and that part of the Atchafalaya River above its junction with the Port Allen-Morgan City Alternate Route including the Old River and the Red River.