Navigating a Boat on Canadian Waterways

The Canadian Collision Regulations govern navigation rules on Canadian waterways and help boaters determine which craft has the right-of-way. These rules apply to all vessels and to all waters in Canada.

As a Canadian boater you are required know and understand Canada's Navigation Rules.

Determining Right-of-Way

  • Stand-on Craft
    Boats with the right-of-way are called "stand-on craft". Stand-on craft are able to maintain their speed and course when approaching another vessel.
  • Give-Way Craft
    Boats that do not have the right-of-way are called "give-way craft". Give-way craft must take early and substantial action to steer clear of the stand-on craft, altering their speed and direction to avoid a collision.

Several factors determine which craft has the right-of-way:

  • The type of craft you're operating.
  • The type of craft you're approaching.
  • The position and direction from which other boats are approaching.
  • The type of waterway that you're operating on.

Power-driven boats approaching each other establish right-of-way by determining each boat's position relative to the other. To properly understand right-of-way, you must be able to recognize the boating terminology for side of the boat, including the Port side, Starboard side and Stern side. You should reference these sides relative to other boat traffic in order to determine who has the right-of-way.

  • Port: Left side when looking to the front of the boat. If a power-driven boat approaches your boat from the port sector, maintain your course and speed with caution.
  • Starboard: Right side when looking to the front of the boat. If any vessel approaches your boat from the starboard sector, you must keep out of its way.
  • Stern: Back of the boat when looking to the front of the boat. If any vessel approaches your boat from the stern (from behind your boat) you should maintain your course and speed with caution.

The Give Way zone
Your Starboard Sector (the sector defined by your green starboard sidelight) is the "Danger" or Give Way Zone.

When another boater sees your green light, he or she has the right-of-way. In this situation you will see the port side of the other boat and it's red port sidelight. You must take early and substantial action to avoid a collision.

Navigating a Boat at Night

Right-of-way and navigation rules are the same whether operating during the day or at night. However, while operating at night or during periods of restricted visibility, you must determine the speed, position, and size of other boats according to the navigation lights they exhibit.

Navigation lights must be used on any pleasure craft that operates from sunset to sunrise or during periods of restricted visibility. The navigation lights you are required to display depend on the following:

  • The size of your boat
  • Whether it is sail-driven or power-driven
  • Whether it is underway or at anchor

Power-driven pleasure craft must exhibit a forward masthead light, sidelights and a sternlight. Smaller craft (less than 12 m in length) are able to exhibit an all-round light in lieu of a masthead and stern light. Accordingly, many small boats (such as bowriders and runabouts) typically have an all-round light affixed to the top of a light pole that can be placed at the stern of the craft. When underway, this light functions as a combined masthead and sternlight. When at anchor, this light also functions as an all-round light.

Head-On Approach At Night
If you meet a vessel and see a green, red and white light, you are approaching another power-driven boat head-on. In this situation neither boat has the right-of-way. Both operators must take early and substantial action to steer well clear of the other boat. Both operators should reduce their speed and steer to starboard.

If you meet a boat and see a green and red light but no masthead (white) light, then you are approaching a sail-driven vessel. You are the give-way craft and must yield right-of-way to the sailing vessel.

Port Approach At Night
If a green and white light is visible, then another craft is approaching you from the port (left) side. In this situation, you are the stand-on craft and should maintain your speed and course. The other craft should take early and substantial action to steer well clear of your craft.

Starboard Approach At Night
If a red and white light is visible, then another craft is approaching you from the starboard (right) side. In this situation you are the give-way craft and must yield right-of-way. You should take early and substantial action to steer well clear of the other craft. Reduce your speed, change direction and pass at safe distance behind the other boat.

Overtaking At Night
If only a white light is visible, you are approaching another craft from behind. You are the give-way-craft and must take early and substantial action to steer well clear by altering your course and passing at a safe distance on the starboard (right) or port (left) side.

What else does a white light indicate?
If you see only a white light, it can generally indicate one of three things:

  • You are approaching another craft from behind
  • You are approaching a non-powered craft
  • You are approaching a craft that is at anchor

Remember: In any of these situations, you do not have the right-of-way and must take early and substantial action to steer well clear and pass at a safe distance.

Approaching Non-Powered Boats At Night
If you are approaching a non-powered craft, you are the give-way craft and must yield the right of way. You should take early and substantial action to stay well clear and pass at a safe speed and distance.

Anchoring At Night
When anchored, you should exhibit your boat's all-round white light. This single white light indicates to other boaters that you are at anchor. Do not display your green and red sidelights as these indicate to other boaters that you are underway.

The printed version of the Official BOATsmart!® Study Guide available at participating Canadian Tire Stores can act as an excellent safe boating resource that boaters can use to refresh their boating knowledge.

Boat navigation: Port side, starboard side and stern

Boat navigation: The give way zone