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Navigation Rules
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1. Where can I get a copy of the Navigation Rules? A free electronic copy of the Coast Guard Navigation Rules and Regulations Handbook is available here. It is also available on the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's (NGA) Marine Safety-Digital Nautical Publication Quarterly CD-ROM Update; DOD activities and federal agencies may submit electronic orders via Military/Federal Standard Requisitioning and Issue Procedures (MILSTRIP/FEDSTRIP, National Stock No. 7644015310779, NGA Ref. No. CDPUBQTLY). For further information, contact the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) at 1-800-826-0342 or 804-279-6500; DSN 695-6500; fax 804-279-6524. Government printed versions of the Handbook are not available. Commercial reproductions of the Handbook are available, but the Coast Guard does not attest to their veracity.
Printed copies of the Handbooks will also be available for purchase at the U.S. Government Bookstore, call Tel: 202-512-1800, or email for ordering information.

The Handbook's predecessor, Commandant Instruction M16672.2D, NAVIGATION RULES: International-Inland (ISBN: 9780160500572) CIM16772.2d can also be downloaded here: as published (3/25/99), its corrigendum, corrigendum with reference sources, or its last corrected version (7/1/13).

2. Have there been any changes to Navigation Rules? Yes. The changes are available here.

3. What "vessels" are required to comply with the Navigation Rules? In Rule 3 the word vessel includes every description of watercraft, including non-displacement craft, WIG craft, and seaplanes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.

Courts have interpreted transportation to not just include passengers, but also goods or services. The Navigation Rules address vessels, not whom/what is controlling them.

4. Am I required to carry a copy of the Navigation Rules? Per 33 CFR 88.01(g), the operator of each self-propelled vessel 12 meters or more in length shall carry on board and maintain for ready reference a copy of the Inland Navigation Rules. Electronic copies of the Navigation Rules are acceptable, however, only if they are currently corrected to the latest Notice to Mariners and can be made available for ready reference.  The unwritten rule of thumb: 'readily' means that you are able to avail yourself of a Rule(s) within 2 minutes of the need to do so.

5. Who has the "right of way" on the water? The Navigation Rules convey a right-of-way only in one particular circumstance: to power-driven vessels proceeding downbound with a following current in narrow channels or fairways of the Great Lakes , Western Rivers, or other waters specified by regulation (Inland Rule 9(a)(ii)). Otherwise, power-driven vessels are to keep out of the way (Rule 18) and either give-way (Rule 16) or stand-on (Rule 17) to vessels not under command or restricted in their ability to maneuver, sailing vessels or vessels engaged in fishing, and, similarly vessels should avoid impeding the safe passage of a vessel constrained by her draft (Rule 18), navigating a narrow channel (Rule 9) or traffic separation scheme (Rule 10). The Rules do not grant privileges they impose responsibilities and require precaution under all conditions and circumstances; no Rule exonerates any vessel from the consequences of neglect (Rule 2). Neglect, among other things, could be not maintaining a proper look-out (Rule 5), use of improper speed (Rule 6), not taking the appropriate actions to determine and avoid collision (Rule 7 & 8) or completely ignoring your responsibilities under the Rules.

Note, a power driven vessel means any vessel propelled by machinery; regardless of the machinery being used or not.

6. Rules 24(a-d) -- lights on power-driven vessels-- confuse me: The intent of Rule 24 is to state that the towing identification lights on a power driven vessel when towing may be carried in either the location of the forward masthead light or the after masthead light if carried. Rules 24(a) and 24(c) concern the description of the towing identification lights and where they shall be carried. Rule 24 (d) refers to Rule 23(a) which concerns the requirement for the masthead light(s).

7. What is the safe speed or passing distance for vessels? The Navigation Rules -appropriately so- do not define a distinct safe speed or passing distance. According to Rule 16 – Action to Give-way when crossing, meeting, or overtaking another vessel, other than, as the give-way vessel, you are to keep well clear. Similarly, the distance a vessel may be required to take action to avoid collision, will vary, however it should be in accordance with Rule 6 – Safe Speed and Rule 8 – Action to Avoid Collision. These rules which state, amongst other things, that any alteration of course or speed shall be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel and taken early enough to allow sufficient sea room for the safe passage of the other vessel and at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.

8. What is a special flashing light? View the Arcs of Visibility page for an explanation of a special flashing light.

9. Who specifies whether a waterway is a Narrow Channel and therefore Rule 9 is applicable? A waterway is deemed a narrow channel by the practical and traditional uses of that waterway (usually a court determination) or it can be specified by the Secretary in 33 CFR 89.25.

Note, Rule 9 differs between the International and Inland sections.

Rule 9 Inland Rules: (a) A power-driven vessel traveling downbound with a following current shall have the right-of-way over an upbound vessel in the Great Lakes , Western Rivers , and those waters specified by the Secretary.

Rule 9 International Rules: (f) A vessel nearing a bend or an area of a narrow channel or fairway where other vessels may be obscured by an intervening obstruction shall navigate with particular alertness and caution and shall sound the appropriate signal prescribed in Rule 34(e).

10. What are the regulations concerning wake effects, wake damage, and responsibility? Regarding one's wake, vessels over  1600 Gross Tons (GT) are specifically required by Title 33 CFR 164.11 to set the vessel's speed with consideration for...the damage that might be caused by the vessel's wake. Further, there may be State or local laws which specifically address "wake" for the waters in question.

While vessels under 1600 GT are not specifically required to manage their speed in regards to wake, they are still required to operate in a prudent matter which does not endanger life, limb, or property (46 USC 2302). Nor do the Navigation Rules exonerate any vessel from the consequences of neglect (Rule 2), which, among other things, could be unsafe speeds (Rule 6), improper lookout (Rule 5), or completely ignoring your responsibilities as prescribed by the Navigation Rules.

As to whether or not a particular vessel is responsible for the damage it creates is a question of law and fact that is best left to the Courts. For more information, contact your local Marine Patrol or State Boating Law Administrator.

11. Am I required to have Radar? Radar is not required on vessels under  1600 GT (33 CFR 164.35), however, Rule 7 states that proper use shall be made of radar equipment if fitted and operational. In other words, whoever has one must use it. The Navigation Rules are not meant to discourage the use of any device, rather they expect prudent mariners to avail themselves of all available means to make full appraisal of the situation (Rule 5), e.g. the use of radar. At issue is whether the use of radar is appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and that is a determination made by the Master; and, ultimately decided by a trier of fact.

Should you be in a collision how would a judge/jury rule on your contention that the use of radar was impracticable (due to electrical drain, crew shortages, etc.)? Also, if a collision does occur, then there was obviously a risk of collision beforehand. Could the determination of that risk have been made sooner with the use of radar? It is difficult to answer such questions because the circumstances of each case are different.

More importantly, remember that Rule 7 specifies that assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information, especially scanty radar information.

12. When do I need a Look-out? According to Rule 5, all vessels are responsible for maintaining a proper look-out at all times - this includes one-man crews, unmanned crafts, and recreational boats.

The term look-out implies watching and listening so that he/she is aware of what is happening around the vessel. The emphasis is on performing the action, not on the person. Still, in all but the smallest vessels, the lookout is expected to be an individual who is not the helmsman and is usually located in the forward part of the boat, away from the distractions and noises of the bridge. While no specific location on a vessel is prescribed for the lookout, good navigation requires placement at the point best suited for the purpose of hearing and observing the approach of objects likely to be brought into collision with the vessel.
The size of the vessel and crew effect this answer, however, the emphasis in every legal decision points to the need for a proper, attentive look-out. While the use of radar to evaluate the situation is implied in the requirement to use all available means, that is still understood to be secondary to maintaining a look-out by sight and hearing.

13. Where do Kayaks and Canoes fit into the Navigation Rules? Neither the International nor Inland Navigation Rules address "kayaks" or "canoes" per se, except in regards to "vessels under oars" in Rule 25 regarding lights. One could infer that a "vessel under oars" should be treated as a "sailing vessel" since it is permitted to display the same lights as one, but, ultimately the issue of whom "gives way" would fall to what would be "required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case" (Rule 2).

14. Can I use Strobe Lights to be more visible at night? For any other lights beyond those specifically defined within the Navigation Rules they should be such lights as cannot be mistaken for the lights specified in these Rules, or do not impair their visibility or distinctive character, or interfere with the keeping of a proper look-out (Rule 20).

Displaying a strobe for "higher visibility" would confuse other vessels as to your navigational status (many aids to navigation use a strobe or flashing). Also, lights provide direction and aspect information to other boat operators. For example, if while operating my vessel I see a red light on my starboard side I know I am the give-way vessel (Rule 16, 17). The use of a strobe light could overwhelm a vessel's navigation lights and cease to provide such crucial direction and aspect information to other boat operators.

Also, Rule 36 of the International Rules addresses signals to attract attention and for the purpose of [that] rule the use of high intensity intermittent or revolving lights, such as strobe lights, shall be avoided. Rule 37 of the Inland Rules addresses strobes in regards to distress signals so that when a vessel is in distress and requires assistance she shall use...a high intensity white light flashing at regular intervals from 50 to 70 times per minute.

Since strobe light use is to be avoided (International waters) or used as a distress signal (Inland waters), it cannot be used to routinely mark vessels operating on the water.

15. How do I report a marine accident? 33 CFR 173 provides guidance in regards to accident reporting. For most States the issuing and reporting authority is the State itself - if in doubt contact your local Coast Guard Marine Safety Office.

16. Who is responsible for damage incurred during a marine accident?There is a long standing notion of Tort Law--that one is responsible for one's damages--the issue however is culpability and to what degree. These are matters of fact and law.

17. What does WIG stand for? A wing-in-ground (WIG) craft is defined as a vessel capable of operating completely above the surface of the water on a dynamic air cushion created by aerodynamic lift due to the ground effect between the vessel and the water’s surface. WIG craft are capable of operating at speeds in excess of 100 knots. Presently, there are no Coast Guard safety standards for WIG craft. The Coast Guard has started the process of developing safety standards that will address the design, construction, operation, licensing and maintenance of WIG craft with further assistance from the Federal Aviation Administration. Additionally, the United States is working with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to develop international standards for WIG craft. Questions or comments regarding the development of appropriate WIG craft standards should be referred to Commandant (G-ENG-1) at (202) 267- 0171.  A copy of the Coast Guard's interim WIG craft guidance is located here (.pdf, 104 KB).  It has more details on requirements for testing and commercial use.

18. What are Demarcation Lines and Territorial Seas? Demarcation Lines divide the high seas from harbors, rivers, and other inland waters of the United States, for the purpose of determining the applicability of Inland Rules in lieu of the International Rules. International Rules are tantamount to the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972, (72 COLREGS), while the Inland Rules are synonymous with 33 CFR 80 of United States Code.

Note, the term international water is not defined by U.S. law or the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), yet, it is commonly used to convey high seas. High seas are those waters beyond territorial seas. Territorial seas are a maritime zone extending beyond the land territory and internal waters of that country over which the country exercises sovereignty and jurisdiction, to include the airspace over the territorial sea, as well as to its bed and subsoil.

Territorial seas of the United States are 12 nautical miles from the baseline of the United States of America, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the United States Virgin Islands, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and any other territories or possessions over which the United States exercises sovereignty. The territorial waters of the United States can sometimes extend out to 24 or 200 miles depending on the matter in question; see 33 CFR 2 or UNCLOS for further information.

19. What are the Waters Specified by the Secretary? There is a list of waters specified by the Secretary as quoted from 33 CFR 89.25. These waters are referred to in the Inland sections of Rule 9(a)ii, Rule 14(d), Rule 15(b), and Rule 24(i).

20. Are Mobile Offshore Drilling Units (MODU) required to comply with the Navigation Rules? Yes, per Navigation Rule 3 and as defined in 33 CFR §140.10 MODU's are vessels, as such they shall abide by the Navigation Rules and properly display navigation lights and shapes accordingly (i.e. Rules 22, 23(a), 27(d), etc.). MODU's, particularly when drilling, are also subject to other regulations denoted in Title 33 CFR, parts 67, 140 -147 (Subchapter N).

Note: A vessel being propelled by a dynamic positioning system (e.g. MODU) is considered underway even when hovering on location, but, may also be "restricted in her ability to maneuver" as defined by Navigation Rule 3 (International-Inland) depending on the operations (e.g. drilling) being conducted from the vessel at the time.

21. Where can I get flash cards or test questions of the Navigation Rules? The Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, VA produces flash cards to assist our members in learning the Navigation Rules, these are not available for public purchase, but, an electronic version may be downloaded here. For Navigation Rules test questions used in the merchant mariners exam visit the Coast Guard National Maritime Center (NMC).

22. Where can I take a Navigation Rules course? The Coast Guard does not offer nor conduct Navigation courses for the general public, we are however responsible for approving training schools dedicated to Navigation and merchant marine training. A listing of these schools and there locations is maintained at the U.S. Coast Guard National Marine Center (NMC). Note, these schools are dedicated to providing training and education to those seeking or renewing a professional mariners license; whom are likely to encounter these NMC Navigation Rules questions when they take their license examination. For those not required to be licensed, e.g. recreational boaters, we suggest you visit our Boating Safety Resource Center which provides a listing of various sources and organizations which provide boating safety courses throughout the country and on-line; such as those provided by the Coast Guard Auxiliary - the uniformed civilian volunteer component of Team Coast Guard.

23. Where can I get a quick guide to the U.S. Aids to Navigation System? Each compendium of the Light List contains a ready reference guide to the U.S. Aids to Navigation System, which you can also download here.

24. Have a navigation question not answered here? Ask us...