Beginners Guide to Navigating a Boat

Man navigating a boat on the water

Entering the boating world can feel overwhelming for a beginner boat owner. Learning how to navigate a boat is one of the first things you’ll need to know to find success on the water. From navigation methods to boating terminology, we’ll help you get started with this crash course in boat navigation 101.

Table of Contents:

Types of Boat Navigation

Because boating has been around for centuries, a few types of boat navigation exist. While there are a few specific types of navigation, they can all be grouped as either traditional or electronic navigation. Any boater should understand more than one navigation method, so consider these traditional and electronic examples.

A person navigates a small sailboat on the water


Traditional boat navigation was once the only way to navigate a boat. This navigation process is completely manual and can be very accurate if done correctly. While electronics may have taken over many navigation processes, traditional navigation is still beneficial to know in case electronics go down. For example, if your boat experiences a power outage while at sea, you will have to navigate manually. 

Celestial and coastal navigation are some of the most common traditional navigation methods. Celestial navigation involves using stars, planets, constellations and other celestial bodies to determine your location. Coastal navigation uses the coastline to navigate. The boater looks for landmarks and uses the shape of the coast to determine location.


Electronic navigation methods are a modern replacement for old methods and tools. They essentially do the same things as traditional navigation methods, only faster and more effectively. Most boaters today use electronic navigation because it’s much easier and more convenient than traditional methods. However, electronic navigation tools come at a price and can be pretty expensive.

Satellite is the most common electronic navigation method. This is more commonly known as GPS navigation, in which multiple satellites pinpoint your location and display it on a screen. Another method, pilotage, involves fixing your location with high frequencies.


Materials needed for traditional boat navigation


Materials Needed for Traditional Navigation

Many traditional navigators agree that one of the most valuable tools you can use as a boater is your eyes — though this is true for any navigation method. You’ll use your eyes to watch for other boaters, landmarks and your travel direction. Here are some necessary standard navigation tools:

  • Compass: A compass is essential to determining your boat’s direction and the direction of an object or location. A compass measures 360 degrees relative to magnetic north — the needle pointing to zero degrees is north, 90 degrees is east, 180 degrees is south and 270 degrees is west. A hand-bearing compass allows you to turn your body to take multiple trajectories and get your sense of direction.
  • Charts: Charts are maps for boaters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) charts navigable waterways throughout the U.S. and even internationally. Charts are important for mapping out your course and rerouting when necessary. 
  • Dividers: Often referred to as compass dividers, this tool allows you to measure distance on a chart. You can use its two reference points to represent one or more nautical miles. 
  • Parallel rules: Parallel rules are a set of two rulers attached to swiveling arms. Opening and closing the rulers allows you to “walk” them across a chart while maintaining the desired angle. 
  • Stopwatch: A stopwatch or wristwatch is crucial for tracking time when using the ded reckoning navigation method — one of the most basic forms of traditional navigation.
  • Pencil: A pencil allows you to mark a chart with notes regarding bearings, location or speed. It’s best to use a pencil for this so you can erase it later. 

Steps to Take When Using Traditional Navigation

Using the tools listed above, you’ll be able to start navigating your boat. Here are some of the basic navigation steps traditional boaters use:

Locate Your Position

While there may be times when you can identify your location based on numbered buoys in the water, more often than not, finding your location will be more difficult than that. In most cases, there won’t be buoys in the middle of the ocean, so it’s crucial to have a method for locating your position in unfamiliar waters.

The simplest and most effective way to position yourself is triangulation. To triangulate your location, you’ll need to pick three landmarks that are marked on your chart and visible and far apart from each other. Ideal examples include radio towers, lighthouses, navigational markers or points of land. 

Person using a compass to position themselves with triangulation


Locate the landmark you see from your boat on your chart. Get a compass reading or bearing on the physical landmark to determine its direction. Using the inner circle of the compass rose on your map, line your parallel rules on the degree you matched to the landmark using your hand-bearing or boat compass. Then, walk the rules until they intersect with your chosen landmark on the chart and trace a line along the rules.

Look out in a different direction, and choose another landmark. Shoot a bearing at the second landmark with your compass and use the rules to mark another line through the second landmark on the chart. Next, look in yet another direction and choose the third landmark, following the same process for marking it on your chart. 

You’ve found your exact location if your three lines intersect at one point. If the lines come close to intersecting and create a triangle, your location is somewhere inside that triangle. Accurate bearings make a big difference in pinpointing your location, though you can also find a more exact location by adding more landmarks. 

Make a Route With Bearings

In most cases, your route will require various different compass bearings to follow channels or avoid obstructions. Creating a route with bearings allows you to stay on the right track throughout your trip. 

To start your route, position your parallel rules through your starting point and draw a line to begin the path you want to follow. To get the bearing of this line, walk the rules until they intersect with the middle of the chart’s compass. Write the bearing next to the line, which is now the first leg of your trip.

Lay your parallel rules to mark the second leg of your trip and repeat the process until you mark the last leg of your trip through your final destination. Drawing a route with bearings makes it easy to check what your compass should read at any point along your trip. This will help you stay on course and get back on track should you find yourself going in a different direction. 

A pencil drawing a route with bearings

Make a Reciprocal Course

Making your reciprocal course is simple and quick — yet without it, you won’t be able to return the way you came. Because your compass is 360 degrees, using the same bearings to travel home won’t take you in the same direction you came from. To create your reverse route, you’ll need to add or subtract 180 degrees from the initial course bearing. If the initial bearing is less than 180 degrees, you’ll add. If it’s greater than 180 degrees, you’ll subtract. 

For example, the last leg of your initial route will become the first leg of your reciprocal course. If the bearing for that leg were 54 degrees, the reciprocal would be 234 degrees to go back the same way. Outlining your reciprocal course ahead of time will save you time and stress on the way home.

Use Ded Reckoning

Ded reckoning, also known as deduced reckoning, is a valuable tool to know when you can’t see landmarks to help guide you. For example, if there’s dense fog and it’s dark out, you’ll need a way of knowing where you’re going, especially if you’re without electronics. 

First, you’ll need to know a starting point, which should be your approximate current location. From there, make your course line to where you want to go and walk the parallel rules over to the compass rose to take bearings from the inner circle. Do this for each leg of your trip until you reach your final destination. 

Equations needed for ded reckoning

Now you have your course mapped out, but how will you know when to change course along the way? Ded reckoning involves three math equations that you can use to determine the time, distance and speed of your course. Here are the three basic equations needed to ded reckon:

  • Distance / speed = time
  • Speed x time = distance
  • Distance / time = speed

To start, you’ll need to use compass dividers to measure one nautical mile on the chart scale. Once you have one nautical mile measured on the dividers, place one point on your location and walk it to the point where you’ll have to change direction. This allows you to determine how many nautical miles it is to the course change. Next, you’ll need to do some math to determine how long you’ll be traveling until you reach that course change.

For example, let’s say you’re traveling at 10 knots and need to travel 2 nautical miles. There are 60 minutes in an hour so divide by 10 knots, which means you’re traveling 1 nautical mile in 6 minutes. This means it will take 12 minutes to travel 2 nautical miles to reach the turning point in your course.

You’ll need to check your watch as soon as you start cruising. Once the 12 minutes have passed, you’ll want to stop the boat and mark your suspected location on the chart with the current time. Then you’ll change course to follow the next bearing and so on until you reach your destination.

One important thing to remember is that standard miles per hour (MPH) is different from knots. While you can use either speed measurement when calculating, avoid using both as it will throw off your measurements. One nautical mile is equal to 1.15 regular miles. Your calculations will likely be more straightforward if you use knots since charts measure distance in nautical miles.

You can also use ded reckoning to track your position along an undetermined route. Just track the time, bearings, speed and when you change course and record this information as you cruise.

Electronic Navigating Equipment

Understanding traditional navigation methods is important, though most boaters will navigate with electronics. Here is common electronic navigation equipment you could use on your boat:

  • Chartplotter: Chartplotters are one of the most important electronic navigation tools for most boaters. This tool provides a digital chart rather than a physical one and allows you to do everything from marking your current location to plotting a course.
  • Automatic Identification Systems (AIS): An AIS is a transmitter and receiver that can identify commercial boats. AIS can help you determine where ships, barges and tugs are before you’re on top of them. Electronic tools like AIS help prevent boating collisions and other accidents.
  • Radar: Radars broadcast radio waves that reflect off solid objects, allowing you to estimate how far away the object is. This is a valuable tool because it allows you to “see” far off in the distance to avoid obstacles and other ships.

Instrument panel of a boat showing the radar system

  • Depthsounder: Depthsounders, or fish finders, send radio waves down through the water that will bounce off the floor or fish underneath the boat. This allows you to measure the depth of the water so you know where you can safely navigate your boat. 
  • Multifunction displays (MFDs): MFDs are extremely helpful because they integrate all your electronic tools to display on a single LCD screen. They typically sit at your helm for easy viewing and navigation.
  • VFH radio: VFH radios allow boaters to communicate with each other and the Coast Guard from more than 20 miles away. 
  • PLB and EPIRBs: Personal locator beacons (PLB) and electronic position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) units broadcast a help call to satellites so the Coast Guard and other search and rescue authorities know to look for you and help you. Typically, boats use EPIRBs and individuals use PLBs.

VFH radios allow boaters to communicate with each other and the Coast Guard from more than 20 miles away.


What Equipment Do You Actually Need?

As we mentioned before, electronic equipment can be quite costly. Fortunately, depending on your boat and where you go boating, you may only need a few specifics. So, what electronic equipment do you actually need? While each boater’s situation will vary and personal preference and budget come into play, there are some basic rules of thumb based on your boating style regarding what equipment you should have. 

For example, it’s pretty standard for most yachts to be equipped with all the gadgets and tools, while recreational boaters may only need a VFH and MFD. Offshore cruisers and fishing vessels tend to need more devices, and fewer devices are needed as the scope of your boating decreases. Small boats that cruise around protected waterways really only need a VFH. Regardless of your boating type, it’s always a smart idea to have an emergency signaling device onboard.

There are no set rules that determine what electronics you can or can’t have in your boat. This decision is ultimately a judgment call. Here are some considerations to help you determine the necessary navigation tools for your situation:

  • Radar is necessary if you regularly go boating in fog or when there’s reduced visibility. 
  • Unless you boat where there’s high traffic, you likely won’t need AIS.
  • Emergency signaling devices like EPIRBs are vital if you’re traveling through unfamiliar waters or out of sight of the shore. 
  • If you remain within VFH range and never boat in poor weather, you may not need emergency signaling devices, though they’re never a bad idea.

How to Navigate Using Electronic Navigation

Compared to traditional navigation, electronic navigation is extremely simple. For example, finding your location with a chartplotter is as easy as finding your boat icon on the screen. The GPS receiver keeps an updated latitude and longitude displayed on the screen as you navigate. 

Creating a route is just as easy and usually only requires the push of a button or tap on the screen. You’ll move the cursor to your destination and create a waypoint at that location. Next, you’ll choose the “go to” option, which will calculate the bearing to that point. Depending on the chartplotter you have, you may only have to choose a “route” option that automatically routes together various waypoints, or you may have to make more waypoints to create the route. 

Most chartplotters display a digital compass or numerical readings of important information like bearings, speed and course. Chartplotters also automatically generate reciprocal courses with the push of a button. 

Boat Navigation Rules to Keep in Mind

Now that you’re ready to start navigating your boat, you need to be aware of some important boat navigation rules. These rules, and many more, keep waterway traffic flowing smoothly and help avoid collisions. 

Turn Starboard for Power Boats

When you meet another boat head on, turn starboard — or to the right. When both boats turn starboard, they’ll turn away from each other. This rule helps prevent the risk of boats turning into each other when coming head-on.

A boat turns starboard (to the right)

Boats Under Sail Have Right of Way

If you come across a sailboat cruising, they have the right of way. You should turn starboard if approaching them head-on and turn away when crossing their path. 

Pay Attention to Red Markers

Markers and buoys help direct water traffic. There are red and green markers, which you’ll want to keep on certain sides of your boat when exiting and entering a port. When leaving the port, the red markers should be on your left, or portside. When entering the port, keep the red markers on your right side. The green markers will be opposite the red. These directional rules help maintain safe distancing when multiple boats come in and out of a port simultaneously.

Safety Considerations

Boating requires a certain level of responsibility from everyone on the water. There are many safety rules to adhere to and considerations to make to stay as safe as possible on the water. Here are a few more safety considerations to make before and during your boating outing. 

Check the Tides Before Setting Out

If you’re boating in the ocean or bay, you should be aware of when the tides change. Depending on where you are when the tide changes, you could get stuck until the next tide change or accidentally bottom out in shallow water. 

Keep the Weather in Mind

The weather can quickly turn a good day on the water into a nightmare. You should always check the weather before heading out. If your boat is unequipped for boating in poor weather, avoid doing so. Even if you have experience boating in poor weather, it’s best to know what’s in the forecast so you’re prepared for potential storms, fog or wind. Checking the weather beforehand allows you to plan your boating trip safely.

Maintain Safe Speeds

Operating your boat at a safe speed means you’ll have time to stop within a safe distance and avoid collisions. Various conditions can affect what a safe speed looks like, including water conditions, weather, wind, vessel traffic and the maneuverability of your boat. 

Navigate Your Boat Safely With These Tips

As with anything, the more you practice navigating your boat, the better you’ll get. As you gear up your boat for more adventures, you may realize that you want your own floating dock to park your boat. With EZ Dock, you’ll have greater access to the water. Whether you have a lakefront home or a bayside vacation spot, we can help you customize a floating dock solution for your boating needs

Contact our representatives for more information about our boating docks.


Navigate your boat safely with these tips