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Who Does Go First?

Navigation Rules


Know Before You Go!

The Navigation rules, or the "Rules of the Road" were developed to prevent collisions between vessels. They specify uniform patterns of safe operating behavior and they help prevent accidents.

You must have a whistle or audible-signaling device aboard your PWC. The whistle can be attached to your life jacket (PFD) by a lanyard (cord), and used to signal your intent to other boaters. Your whistle should be used in many crossing or passing encounters. In certain boating conditions, boat operators must be able to alert other boats to their presence or operation intentions. This is why sound devices are required equipment on recreational boats, including PWCs.

Avoiding Collisions

There are rules that every operator must follow when encountering other boats or personal watercraft (PWC).

You are responsible for staying alert to your surroundings and taking whatever action is necessary to avoid collision. You are allowed to deviate from the Navigation rules to avoid a situation that puts you and your vessel in immediate danger. Failing to keep a proper lookout with calm, clear weather is the most common cause of collisions. It's vital to maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing. As circumstances and conditions change an operator must use the best means available to assess the situation and avoid the risk of collision.

You are responsible for the damage and injury caused by the wake from your vessel. When operating close to shore, dock, or another vessel reduce your speed so your wake does not disturb others.

Take into account any special circumstances due to weather, boat traffic, and limits of other boats. Keep a close lookout at all times for other boats, navigational hazards and others involved in water activities.

Be sure you operate your boat at a safe speed and distance to insure you will have ample time and space to avoid a collision. Some states have established a safe operating speed and minimal distance when operating a boat above a slow, wakeless (idle) speed. Safe speed will vary depending on conditions such as wind, water conditions, visibility and surrounding boat traffic. Always reduce speed and navigate with extreme caution when visibility is restricted. A power-driven vessel should have engines ready for immediate maneuver. Every vessel that hears a fog signal of another vessel in front of them, or cannot avoid a close-quarters situation with the other vessel should reduce their speed to the minimum required to stay on course. If necessary power should be halted with the operator proceeding with caution until the risk of collision has passed.

PWC operators need to be keenly aware of their relationship to other boat operators, especially if there is more than one PWC operating in a group. These operators may get too close to each other and in some circumstances, accidents have occurred because operators did not maintain a safe speed and distance between their boats. Because a PWC is highly maneuverable, a PWC operator should look over both shoulders before making a turn.

An operator must use all proper means available to determine whether there is a risk of collision. When in doubt it is wise to assume that a risk exists. To determine this, look at the approaching vessel. Would a collision occur if the vessel did not change course? Or even if there was a significant course change would it be enough to avoid a collision? This is often a consideration when a large vessel or a vessel being towed is involved.

Actions taken to avoid a collision should be made well before the collision becomes imminent and the actions are significant enough that they are readily apparent (visually or by radar) to the other vessel. Small course or speed changes will confuse other boaters and should be avoided. It's also important to determine whether any course change will result in another close-quarters situation. If so, the course change should not be made. Another option to avoid a collision is to reduce speed or (on vessels where this is possible) reverse engines. Any action should be with safe passing distance, not impede the safe passing of the other vessel and be made in observance of Navigation Rules and good seamanship.

There are two terms that help explain these rules:

Give-way Vessel: "The powerboat or PWC which is required to take early and substantial action to keep well away and clear from other vessels." This means that the give-way vessel must take action to avoid the Stand-on vessel. This action must be of such a nature that the Stand-on vessel is aware that he can proceed on his course and that no emergency action needs to be taken on his part to avoid a collision.

Stand-On Vessel: The powerboat or PWC which must maintain its course and speed. The vessel required to keep her course and speed finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision. This means that if you are the Stand-on vessel you must maintain course unless maintaining your course puts you in a risk of a collision. If a Give-way vessel has changed course to allow you to maintain your course you may not change your course unless you signal your request to the give-way vessel and he returns your signal in agreement.The powerboat or PWC which must maintain its course and speed. The vessel required to keep her course and speed finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision. This means that if you are the Stand-on vessel you must maintain course unless maintaining your course puts you in a risk of a collision. If a Give-way vessel has changed course to allow you to maintain your course you may not change your course unless you signal your request to the give-way vessel and he returns your signal in agreement.

Never spray another boat, PWC or person with the wake of your PWC. It is obvious that a PWC involved in this activity is operating too close and too fast to the boat or person it is trying to "spray". While this action may seem like fun and harmless to some operators, it is very dangerous and it is illegal and considered reckless or negligent boating activity in most states.

The Rules specifically address three traffic situations:

In these situations, one vessel will usually be the stand-on vessel and the other will be the give-way vessel. The stand-on vessel is expected to maintain course and speed and the give-way vessel must keep out of the way of the stand-on vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard Rules governing these three situations are covered in rules 13, 14, and 15 at the following web page: www.navcen.uscg.gov/mwv/navrules/rotr_online.htm.

In each of the above situations, you must proceed with caution and common sense. Never assume that another boater is aware of what you are planning to do. It is also possible that they don't know the nautical rules of the road! You need to stay alert and be ready to take evasive actions to avoid collision. The Navigation Rules specify which boat fits each description in the three traffic situations on the water.

The navigation rules depend on the type of boats involved: power (any powerboat, PWC or sailboat operating using engine power) and sailing vessel (sailboat operating using wind power).

  1. A power-driven vessel underway must steer clear of the following vessels:

    • Any vessel not under command - this means any vessel anchored or tied to a moorage buoy.

    • Any vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver- this means a large vessel who because of its length or depth is unable to maneuver quickly or is required to stay mid channel because of its draft.

    • Any vessel engaged in commercial fishing;

    • Any sailing vessel using wind as its source of power, except when the sailing vessel is overtaking the power-driven vessel or the sailboat is operating under Rule 9 "narrow channels and western rivers".

  2. A sailing vessel underway must steer clear of the following vessels:

    • Any vessel not under command such as a vessel anchored or tied to a fixed moorage buoy;

    • Any vessel that because of its length, width or depth at the keel is restricted in her ability to maneuver such as narrow channels or fairways;

    • Any vessel engaged in commercial fishing.

  3. A vessel engaged in fishing when underway should, as much as possible, steer clear of the following vessels:

    • Any vessel not under command this means any vessel anchored or tied to a mooring buoy or pier;

    • Any vessel that because of its length, width, or depth at the keel is restricted in her ability to maneuver quickly or in narrow channels or fairways.

  4. Vessels not under command, such as those anchored or tied to a mooring buoy or piling or restricted it their ability to maneuver must avoid, as much as possible, impeding the safe passage of other vessels by allowing their vessel to swing into or block the navigation channel or fairway.

Additional Rules of the Road for Sailboats

Additional navigation rules exist for sailboats that are under sail, that approach each other. These rules are dependant on the direction of the sailboat in relationship to the direction of the wind in relationship to the other sailboat. It is suggested that the operator of a sailboat powered by wind along assume that the operator of another sailboat powered by wind alone is not familiar with these additional rules and enters into a crossing or passing situation with great caution. The following are excerpts of the United States Coast Guard navigation rule 12 additional rules of the road for Sailboats.

  1. "when each has the wind on a different side, the sailing vessel which has the wind on the port side shall keep out of the way of the other." This means that if you are under sail alone and the wind is blowing from your left side you need to keep out of the way of a sailboat with the wind blowing from their right or starboard side.

  2. "when both have the wind on the same side, the vessel which is to windward shall keep out of the way of the vessel which is to leeward." This means if both sailboats have the wind coming from the same side, the sailboat that is upwind must keep out of the way of the sailboat that is further downwind.

  3. "if a vessel with the wind on the port side sees a vessel to windward and cannot determine with certainty whether the other vessel has the wind on the port or on the starboard side, the operator should keep their vessel clear of the other." This means simply that when you are in doubt as to who is the give-way or stand-on sailboat then you should take action to ensure that a safe passage is made and a collision is avoided.

  4. "The windward side is opposite of where the mainsail is carried or, in the case of a square-rigged vessel, the side opposite to that on which the largest fore-and-aft sail is carried."

In each of the above situations, you must proceed with caution and common sense. Never assume that another boater is aware of what you are planning to do. It is also possible that they don't know the nautical rules of the road! You need to stay alert and be ready to take evasive actions to avoid collision. The U.S. Coast Guard Rules governing these three situations are covered in Rule 12 at the following web page: www.navcen.uscg.gov/mwv/navrules/rotr_online.htm

When Navigating In or Near an Area of Restricted Visibility.

The following rules were taken from the USCG Rules of the Road and are available at: www.navcen.uscg.gov/mwv/navrules/rotr_online.htm. These are common sense rules that are for your safety and contain information that will help you avoid an accident or injury to you or your passengers.

  1. "Every vessel shall proceed at a safe speed adapted to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility. A power-driven vessel shall have her engines ready for immediate maneuver." This means that you maintain a speed that will allow you to avoid an accident with another vessel or fixed object. The key to this is maintaining a good lookout and never operate faster than allows you to come to a stop within a clear distance ahead.

  2. "Every vessel shall have due regard to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility when complying with the Rules." Many accidents occur because the operator of a vessel is in a hurry when visibility is restricted. Plan ahead if visibility is restricted and anchor out of the way or tie to a pier or dock until it is safe to continue.

  3. "A vessel which detects by radar alone the presence of another vessel shall determine if a close-quarters situation is developing and/or risk of collision exists. If so, she shall take avoiding action in ample time, provided that when such action consists of an alteration in course, so far as possible the following shall be avoided:

    1. An alteration of course to port for a vessel forward of the beam, other than for a vessel being overtaken.

    2. An alteration of course toward a vessel abeam or abaft the beam."

    This means that a vessel in restricted visibility, operating using radar should plan well ahead its course of action to avoid a collision. The radar gives the vessel an added tool to see through limited visibility such as fog or heavy rain or snow. The operator of a vessel using radar should be trained in its operation and limitations. The radar should be regularly checked during times of good visibility to be sure the radar functions properly and the data is correct as to the distance to an object and the size of object the radar can detect. Be familiar with the owner's manual of your model and brand of radar.

  4. "Except where it has been determined that a risk of collision does not exist, every vessel hearing the fog signal of another vessel apparently forward of their beam, or which cannot avoid a close-quarters situation with another vessel forward of her beam, the operator should reduce the vessel's speed to be the minimum at which it can be kept on course. If necessary, the operator should take power all the way to idle and navigate with extreme caution until danger of collision is over."

The operator of a vessel in this situation should be very experienced with the handling characteristics of their vessel and pay attention to the signals from the other vessel and have knowledge of the sound signals and answer with the proper signal. Horn or whistle signals along with vessel lighting and buoy markings are available on a plastic card or in books that can be obtained at your local boating supply store. They are well worth the money as a quick reference for situations involving restricted visibility.

Rules of Responsibility

Always respect other boaters by acting in a reasonable and prudent manner consistent with the ordinary practices of recreational boating. However, there are occasions when the dangers of navigation and collision exist that force a departure from these rules. Also, there are special circumstances relating to the limitations of the vessels involved. In other words, you should follow the Rules of Responsibility but be aware there may be instances when you must depart from those rules in order to avoid immediate danger, accident or injury.

Disclaimer

The navigation rules of the road contained in this course summarize basic navigation rules for which a boat owner is responsible. Additional and more in-depth rules apply regarding various types of waterways and operation in relation to commercial vessels and other watercraft. It is the responsibility of a boat operator to know and follow all the navigation rules.

For a complete listing of the navigation rules, refer to document "Navigation Rules of the Road" published by the U.S. Coast Guard (COMDTINST 16672.2 Series) and available through the U.S. Government printing office or on the web at: USDOT/USCG Navigation Rules. For state specific navigation requirements, refer to state laws where you intend to boat.

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