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PA Boating Handbook
Boat Navigation Rules / Aids to Navigation

The navigation rules contained in this handbook are a summary for which a boat operator is responsible on inland waterways and Lake Erie. Additional and more in-depth rules apply regarding various types of waterways (such as International Waters and Western Rivers) and operation in relation to commercial vessels and other watercraft. It is the responsibility of a boat operator to know and follow navigation rules. In those states where Inland Rules do not apply, the equivalent International, Western Rivers or Great Lakes rule(s) may be substituted. For a complete listing of the navigation rules, refer to the document “Navigation Rules” published by the U.S. Coast Guard (COMDTINST 16672.2 Series). This is available through the U.S. Government printing office or online at Refer to the state laws where you intend to boat for state-specific navigation requirements.

The purpose of the navigation rules (rules of the road) is to prevent collisions. Since there are no traffic lines and few signs on the water, boat operators must make choices. Common sense is required, but boaters must also know the rules of the road. Operators are responsible for:

  • The safety of all passengers in the boat.
  • The boat’s wake and any damage caused by it.
  • Maintaining a proper lookout and operating at a safe speed for the conditions.
  • Using good seamanship, which is the foundation of the navigation rules.


Boat operators must maintain a proper lookout at all times when operating a boat. Collisions and other types of accidents can be avoided by scanning all around the boat for swimmers, other boats and obstructions. Listening for dangerous situations is also a part of maintaining a proper lookout. Passengers should be asked to assist.


The closest things to signs on the water are aids to navigation. The purpose of ATON is to help boaters avoid problems on the water and for navigation when used in combination with a nautical chart. ATON includes buoys and daymarks (or dayboards). The U.S. Aids to Navigation System has been adopted by the Commission for use on all Commonwealth waters. Boaters should learn this system and presume nothing. Navigational aids are often moved by the Coast Guard, the Fish & Boat Commission, storms, heavy currents or vandals.

In the U.S. Aids to Navigation System, markers designate the edges of a channel and the direction of open water. The colors of these markers are important. Red markers indicate that boaters should navigate with the markers on their starboard (right) side when traveling upstream. Remember the slogan “Red, Right Return,” to find your way home to port. Green markers indicate that boaters should navigate with the markers on their port (left) side when traveling upstream. Red markers have even numbers and green markers have odd numbers.

Aids to navigation

To aid visibility, these buoys may also have lights that match their color. Further distinction between buoys is recognized by their shape:

  • Nun buoyNun buoys: These are cone-shaped red buoys with even numbers and mark the edge of a channel on a boaters starboard (right) side when entering from the open sea or heading upstream.
  • Can buoyCan buoys: These are cylindrical-shaped green buoys with odd numbers and mark the edge of the channel on your port (left) side when entering from the open sea or heading upstream.

Information and Regulatory Markers are used to alert boaters of various warnings and regulatory matters. These regulatory markers are white can buoys with orange shapes and black lettering.


A boater’s speed of operation will vary according to the weather, water conditions, time of day or night, other boat traffic and individual boat characteristics. Safe speed allows the operator to be in control and take correct action to avoid a collision.

Bearing illustrationRISK OF COLLISION

A risk of collision exists when there is the possibility that two boats will arrive at the same point on the water at the same time. The first indication of a risk of collision is when one operator notices that another boat has a constant bearing (or constant relative position) and a decreasing range (the other boat is getting closer). When this occurs, the Rules of the Road make one boat either a stand-on (privileged) vessel or a give-way (burdened) vessel (explanation follows). The risk of collision ends when both boats have avoided the collision by proper action under the rules and are moving safely away from each other.


Under the Rules, the stand-on vessel is required to maintain its course and speed. The give-way vessel is required to stop or slow down or, when overtaking, to pass the other vessel in a safe manner. Under no circumstances should the stand-on vessel assume that the give-way vessel is going to take the action required to avoid a collision. Both operators are required to avoid a collision in any situation.

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