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Boat Navigation,

Charts, Aids,  and Rules


Nautical charts are one of the most fundamental tools available to the mariner. They are the maps that depict the configuration of the shoreline and seafloor. A chart provides water depths, locations of dangers to navigation, locations and characteristics of aids to navigation, anchorages, and other features. On a chart, water depths may be connected by a line known as a depth contour. In 2013, the federal government ceased printing traditional paper charts. They continue to provide other forms of nautical charts, including print on demand paper charts, and versions for use in electronic navigation systems.

Navigation Aids

The waters of the United States are marked by the U.S. Aids to Navigation System. This system employs a simple arrangement of colors, shapes, numbers and light characteristics to mark navigation channels, waterways, and obstructions adjacent to these. Navigation Aids may be anything from lighthouses to minor lights, day beacons, range lights, sound signals, plus lighted and/or unlighted buoys. Each has a purpose that helps the operator determine location, get from one place to another, and stay out of danger. The U.S. Aids to Navigation System is intended to promote boating safety. Its structure is communicated by using on demand paper prints and electronic navigation systems. 

Navigation Rules

The Navigation Rules 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. They also identify a vessel’s maneuvering intention with sound signals, and the vessel’s type and operating condition with lights and day shapes.

Navigation Rules work in concert with the Aids to Navigation System to assist the vessel operator with the process of navigation. The combined aids to navigation system (comprised of charts, aids, and rules) is not intended to identify every shoal or obstruction to navigation which exists in the navigable waters of the United States; but rather, it provides for reasonable marking of marine features as resources permit.

To download an electronic copy of the Navigation Rules and Regulations Handbook press the cover below.

Take an on-line navigation rules practice test. You must score 90% on 30 randomly chosen questions to pass the Coast Guard's minimum Captain's License requirements.  To activate press the button below.

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