Rules of the Road and Safety on the Water
The “rules of the road” for Canada’s waterways help everyone avoid collisions on the water by setting out what every boater should do to avoid hitting or being hit by another vessel. This is not just a way to be polite – it’s the law. These rules apply to every vessel and operator on all navigable waterways – from canoes to supertankers.
These rules are set out in the Collision Regulations under Schedule I – Section I: Conduct of vessels in any condition of visibility and Section II: Conduct of vessels in sight of one another. Learn the rules of the road and boat by them!
Some of the rules of the road for sailing vessels include:
- When each sailing vessel has the wind on a different side, the vessel that has the wind on its port (left) side must keep out of the way of the other. As you can see below, vessel A keeps clear of vessel B.
- If a sailing vessel has the wind on its port side and the operator is not sure if the other vessel has the wind on its port or starboard (right) side, the first boat must keep out of the way of the other.
- When both sailing vessels have the wind on the same side, the vessel to windward* must keep out of the way of the vessel to leeward. As you can see below, vessel B keeps clear of vessel A.
*The windward side is opposite to the side that carries the mainsail or, in the case of a square-rigged vessel, the side opposite to the side that carries the largest fore-and-aft sail.
Look for more rules of the road at the back of this guide.
Keep Watch to Avoid Collisions
Keeping constant watch for others on the water is common sense and the law. If you are sharing the water with large vessels, remember that it is harder for them to see you or change their route to avoid you. It also takes them longer to stop. These are all good reasons to be ready to move out of their way.
Vessels less than 20 m (65’7”) and sailing vessels must stay out of the way of larger vessels that can safely navigate only within the navigation channel. A large vessel will remind you to give way by giving five or more short blasts of its horn. This means there is an emergency and you must get out of the way.
Steer Clear of Shipping Lanes
Some boaters do not realize the risk they take when they cross shipping lanes or pass in front of larger vessels. Since these vessels probably will not see you until it is too late, remember to:
- Always watch for others on the water and be ready to yield to large vessels in the safest way – keeping in mind the water and weather conditions. Use radar and radio if you have them.
- Navigate in groups of other small boats when possible, to be more visible.
- Stay off the water in fog or high winds.
- Stay clear of docked ferries, ferries in transit, vessels in tow and working fishing vessels.
Give Plenty of Space to Tugs and Other Towing Vessels
Tugs may tow vessels on a long tow line that extends behind the tug. The tow line is often so long that it hangs below the surface of the water and is nearly invisible. Never pass between a tug and its tow. If a small boat were to hit the hidden line, it could capsize and be run down by the object being towed. Many towed objects will also have a long trailing line behind them. Give the tug and its tow plenty of space in every direction.
Be alert for special lights displayed by tugs (or any vessels) towing barges, other boats or objects. The tug is usually more visible than its tow, whose navigation lights do not include masthead lights and are often much dimmer than those of the tug.
If a power-driven vessel is towing another vessel or object from its stern, the power-driven vessel must display:
- a sternlight;
- a towing light (yellow light with the same characteristics as the sternlight);
- two masthead lights in a vertical line – three if the tow exceeds 200 m (656’); and
- a diamond shape where it will be easy to see if the tow exceeds 200 m (656’) – day signal.
If a barge, vessel or any other object is being towed, it must display:
- a sternlight; and
- a diamond shape where it will be easy to see if the tow exceeds 200 m (656’).
If the requirements above are not practicable, the tow must carry one all-round white light at each end (front and back).
If you’re looking to fit your boat with navigation lights for towing, refer to Rule 24 of the Collision Regulations for details.
Be Aware and Polite
Never buzz, try to spray swimmers, or cut in front of or try to jump the wake of other vessels. Some of the worst boating incidents happen when speed or distance is misjudged. It makes matters even worse when the people involved are friends or family members.
Operate at a Safe Speed
You may have to stop or turn suddenly to avoid a collision, so operate at a safe speed. A safe speed depends on:
- your ability to see ahead – slow is the only safe speed in fog, mist, rain and darkness;
- currents and wind and water conditions;
- how quickly your boat can change direction;
- how many and what types of vessels are near you; and
- the presence of navigational hazards such as rocks and tree stumps.
Be very careful when boating where visibility is poor, such as entering or exiting a fog bank.
A boat’s wake can damage other vessels, docks and the shoreline. It can also be a risk for swimmers, divers and people on small boats that might capsize. Be aware of how your boat’s wake might affect others when choosing your speed. You will be responsible for any damages or harm you cause.
Reduce Engine Noise
Every boat equipped with a motor other than a stock (unmodified) outboard engine must have a muffler and use it while operating within five (5) nautical miles (9.26 km) of shore.
This does not apply to you if your boat was built before January 1, 1960, or if you are in an official competition or in formal training or final preparation for an official competition.
Waterskiing and Other Recreational Towing Activities
The rules that govern waterskiing also apply to other towing activities like barefoot skiing, tubing, kneeboarding and parasailing. When towing someone with your boat, remember:
- There must be a spotter on board the boat who can keep watch on each person being towed and communicate with the operator.
- There must be an empty seat on your boat for each person being towed in case they need to come on board.
- Only personal watercraft made to carry three or more people may be used for towing.
- If anyone being towed is not wearing a lifejacket, there must be one on board for them.
- No towing is allowed when visibility is poor or from one hour after sunset to sunrise.
- A towing boat cannot be remotely controlled.
These requirements do not apply to a boat that is being operated during formal training, in an official competition or in a skill demonstration if the boat meets the safety requirements of a governing body respecting such training, competitions or demonstrations.
Keep Your Distance from Divers Below the Surface
Diving is a popular water sport so know what a diver down flag looks like and keep careful watch for such flags. This is very important because the wake from your boat, along with weather and other factors, can make it hard to see divers’ bubbles on the surface of the water.
Divers’ boats must display the international blue and white Code Flag Alpha. A red and white flag that may also be carried on a buoy marks the area where diving is in progress, although divers may stray from the boundaries of the marked areas. If you decide to go diving from your boat, remember to display these flags as well. Best practice includes staying within 100 m (328’) of your flag.
When you see either flag, give divers plenty of room by keeping your boat at least 100 m (328’) from the flag. If you can’t stay that far away because of the size of the waterway, slow down as much as possible, move ahead with caution, and keep clear of the vessel and diving site.
As a boater, you must be aware of what is going on around you, both on the water and in the skies. Watch for aircraft anytime you are out on the water and give plenty of space to any aircraft that is landing or taking off.
Safety Around Dams
Be very careful near canal dams and waste weirs where currents and undertows can be very dangerous. It is against the law to jump, dive, scuba dive, swim or bathe within 40 m (131’) of a dam.
Low-head dams are especially dangerous. Boaters and anglers often get too close to the downstream side of the dam, become drawn or sucked into the backwash current that takes them to the base of the dam, and are then forced under water. Victims are then pushed away from the dam under water. After surfacing, the victim is drawn back in toward the base of the dam, starting the cycle over again.
Find out if there are any dams where you plan to go boating before you head out – and stay clear of them.
Safety in Historic Canals and Locks
When visiting one of Canada’s historic canals, make sure your boat has good mooring lines and securely fastened floating fenders in sufficient numbers and size.
Many water activities are not allowed in a canal. Some rules include:
- no excessive noise between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.;
- no fishing within 10 m (32’10”) of a lock or approach wharf or from a bridge that passes over a navigation channel;
- no diving, jumping, scuba diving or swimming in a navigation channel or within 40 m (131’) of a lock gate or a dam;
- no waterskiing or other towing activities while in a navigation channel or within 100 m (328’1”) of a lock structure; and
- no mooring a vessel to a navigation aid.
Visit Parks Canada at www.pc.gc.ca to learn more about historic canals.
Passage Through a Lock
Obey the posted speed limits and be aware of your boat’s wake when approaching a lock. Why? Because wake limits are more important than speed limits in these areas. Other things to remember include:
- Keep clear of the channel near lock gates so that vessels can come and go safely.
- A blue line on the mooring wharf shows where to wait for the next lockage.
- Follow the instructions given by lockmasters and bridge operators (at a number of lock stations, a green traffic light is your signal to go ahead).
- Enter the lock slowly (no faster than 10 km/h) and have people at the bow and stern of your boat ready with mooring lines.
- If the lock has drop cables, loop boat lines around them, not to them, and only once your boat is safely positioned. If the lock has floating docks, you may be told to tie up to one inside the lock chamber.
- Tend vessel lines carefully during the lockage. Looping a line around a deck cleat may provide extra leverage.
- Never leave bow or stern lines unattended.
- Switch off the engine(s) and generator. Open flames and smoking are not allowed during lockage.
- The bilge blower must be operating during lockage.
When the lock gates open, wait for staff to direct you to restart your engine. Make sure all lines are returned to your boat and exit slowly and in order. Watch out for wind, currents and other vessels.
If you plan to use the St. Lawrence Seaway locks, consult the St. Lawrence Seaway Pleasure Craft Guide at www.greatlakes-seaway.com to learn how they operate.