Navigation Rules for on the water

So far we’ve focused on what you, the individual boater, can do to protect yourself during National Safe Boating Week. We’ve emphasized wearing life jackets, avoiding alcohol when operating a boat, ensuring you’ve got the proper safety equipment before you hit the water, and properly documenting your paddlecraft.


This chart depicts rules of the road for navigating in a channel

Here we discuss one of the Inland Navigation Rules, which are the official rules governing how vessels treat one another.

The Navigation Rules are much like the rules of the road on the highway. They establish a consistent way to navigate safely and avoid collisions when two boats are crossing paths, are on course to meet head-on, or when one boat wishes to overtake another.

You can download the nav rules for free here, and printed copies are available for purchase at most boating supply stores.

Rule 9 Nav-feature

File photo of recreational sailboat transiting near a large commercial vessel.
Photo capture of video by PA2 Pamela Boehland

There are 38 nav rules. The ninth rule provides guidance on the responsibilities between vessels of different drafts in narrow channels. You can read the rule in its entirety here.

Inland Navigation Rules

Navigation Rules book

The Great Lakes are unique for many reasons, one of which is that narrow channels connect them, and they’re a mixing ground of hundreds of thousands vessels, from inner tubes floating down the Detroit River to tribal fishing vessels plying the waters of Lake Superior, to “Salties,” ocean-going cargo ships, transiting the St. Lawrence Seaway en route to Chicago, Milwaukee or Cleveland. There are no stop signs on the Great Lakes. There are no lane markers, and the parameters of what defines a safe lane vary from vessel to vessel.

Navigation Rule 9

Navigation Rule 9

The relevant portions of Rule 9 are summarized in plain English below:

• If you’re in a narrow channel or fairway, stay as far to the edge of the channel on your starboard side (your right side when you’re facing the front of your boat) as is safe.
• In the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway System, the vessel heading downbound in a river or narrow channel has the right of way over any vessel heading upbound. The vessel with the right-of-way gets to choose how and where the two vessels will pass.
• If you’re in a boat less than 20 meters in length (slightly more than 65 feet) or in a sailing vessel, stay out of the way of vessels that can’t operate outside the narrow channel/fairway they’re operating in. In other words, remember that a vessel with a deeper draft probably can’t safely go in the same places you can, so don’t run them off their road.
• Same goes for a vessel engaged in fishing.
• Don’t cross a narrow passage or channel if doing so impedes the passage of a vessel that can only operate within it.
• If you can’t see around the bend in a channel or fairway and there might be a vessel there, make an appropriate sound signal.
• You wouldn’t park in the middle of the road. Don’t anchor in a narrow channel if you can avoid it.