On the Water

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on the water

Everyone has the right to enjoy a safe, fun time on the water. This means that everyone also has a responsibility to respect and share waterways with wildlife, swimmers, divers, other boaters and watercraft ranging from sail boats to float planes. This section outlines some basic rules for Canada's waterways and guides you through some of the things you need to be aware of and watch out for while you're out on the water.

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!

Here are some of the rules of the road for sailing vessels include:

sailing vessel with wind on port side - image

  • 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.
  • sailing vessels with wind on same side - imageIf 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 on the Quick Reference Material page.

Keep Watch to Avoid Collisions

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 (657) 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. 

  • 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:

  • sidelights;
  • 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:

  • sidelights;
  • 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. 

Operate at a Safe Speed

reduce engine noiseYou 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;
  • current, 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 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. Here are rules to remember when towing someone
with your boat:

  • 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.

diver down flags

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.


seaplaneAs 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

passage of boat through 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.

Small Vessel and Facility Security Awareness

Transport Canada believes the best way to keep small vessels and small vessel facilities safe and secure is to promote security awareness.

In Canada, small vessels including pleasure craft often operate near critical infrastructure such as hydro dams, power plants, chemical factories, bridges and key marine assets such as merchant vessels, ferries or cruise ships — potential targets for terrorist attacks.

A small vessel could be used as:

  • a floating bomb;
  • a launch pad for attacking maritime industry or other critical infrastructure; or
  • a means of smuggling weapons or terrorists.

The use of small vessels for such activities could put our public safety and security, as well as our national commerce, trade and economy at risk. That is why you should know how to reduce the risk of terrorists using small vessels and know what to do if you see any suspicious activity on or near Canada’s waterways. To learn more about security and terrorism in Canada, search the Internet for Integrated Threat Assessment Centre.

Maritime Security: A Global Concern

secuity vessel

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the United Nations agency responsible for improving maritime safety and security. In 2008, it issued voluntary security guidelines for small vessels and facilities. Transport Canada helped draft them. They encourage you to report suspicious activities to appropriate authorities and describe best practices that we hope you will consider. The IMO voluntary guidelines will help you:

  • plan for security incidents;
  • offer security awareness programs; and
  • prevent the theft or hijacking of, and unauthorized access to, small vessels.

Guidelines for Pleasure Craft

The following section is a summary of the IMO guideline’s Appendix relating
to pleasure craft. Remember: the overall safety and security of your boat, crew and passengers are your responsibility. That is why you should follow the advice below.

Search Your Boat

Search your pleasure craft often to make sure that nothing suspicious has been placed on board, left behind or removed while the boat was left unattended. If you find something suspicious, contact the appropriate local authorities right away. Do not handle suspicious packages or objects.

Secure Your Vessel

Where possible, lock external doors, hatches and storage areas, and secure windows when you leave your pleasure craft unattended. If it will be left unattended for some time:

  • moor the vessel according to local port by-laws;
  • lock ignition switches to prevent theft/unauthorized use;
  • always take the ignition key with you;
  • consider installing a small craft alarm system to alert you to any unauthorized movement (Integrating the alarm system with smoke and fire sensors will give you a complete vessel protection system);
  • consider using steering locks, if practical;
  • consider etching the hull identification number onto windows and hatches; and
  • consider installing a hidden device to shut off the fuel line, or an engine immobilizer.

Protect Your Property

It is a good idea to mark and photograph your vessel and equipment. This will help authorities identify stolen equipment. Consider getting a radio frequency identification device (RFID) anti-theft system, if available. Why? Such systems reduce theft risk, increase recovery rates and in some instances, reduce insurance fees.

Choose a Safe Route

Plan your route and ports of call carefully before a voyage. Make every effort to avoid areas where terrorism and criminal activities, including piracy and armed robbery, are a major threat. If you must travel through unsafe waters:

  • travel with other vessels as quickly as possible;
  • notify the maritime authorities for the area before you arrive or leave; and

keep to a strict contact schedule, preferably via satellite, mobile telephone or similar system that terrorists cannot use to locate the vessel through radio direction finding.

Be Prepared

Make sure your emergency plans include procedures for navigation problems, health and safety issues, and security alerts and incidents. Conduct regular drills to make sure that everyone on board knows what to do if a safety or security incident occurs. If you are navigating in high security-risk areas, always search your pleasure craft carefully before getting underway. Take extra care when searching places where a stowaway might hide, such as sail lockers. If possible, conduct the search with another person for your own safety. If you do find a stowaway, contact the appropriate authorities right away.

Report Security Incidents

Have a plan for reporting and recording security incidents. The plan should include contacting the nearest police and/or coastal authorities, and nearby vessels.

To learn more about the IMO security guidelines, search the Internet for MSC.1/Circ.1283.

United States Small Vessel Strategy

If you navigate on waterways shared with the United States, you may be interested in the Department of Homeland Security’s Small Vessel Security Strategy, released in 2008. To learn more, search the Internet for DHS Small Vessel Security Strategy.

Reporting Suspicious Activities

Transport Canada believes the best way to keep small vessels and small vessel facilities secure is to promote security awareness. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) also has a suspicious coastal activity awareness and reporting program. To learn about this program, search the Internet for RCMP suspicious coastal activity.

Reporting suspicious activities is important because the RCMP, provincial and municipal police need the marine community and people who live in remote coastal areas to be their eyes and ears. There is just too much navigable water within Canada and along our borders for the police to maintain marine security without help.

To learn more about Transport Canada Marine Security Activities, visit www.tc.gc.ca.

How You Can Help

We know that most people using small vessels and facilities are law-abiding, and that activities that appear suspicious may not be. Answer the questions below and use your best judgment to decide whether or not you should report what you may see.

  • Are unauthorized persons inappropriately trying to gain access to vessels or facilities?
  • Are a vessel’s crew members not typical for the type of small vessel?
  • Are crew members reluctant to leave a vessel while it is being serviced and/or are they taking unusual security measures?
  • Is a vessel anchored or running without lights in the dark?
  • Are there smaller vessels hovering near a larger vessel?
  • Are there lights flashing between boats?
  • Are crew members recovering items from or tossing items into the water or onto the shoreline?
  • Are people or things being transferred between vessels, between a vessel and a floatplane, or between a vessel and the shore?
  • Are vessel owners reluctant to fully identify themselves to a marina or harbour authority? Is it hard for those authorities to locate owners?
  • Do people appear too interested in potential targets such as hydro dams, power plants, chemical factories, bridges and key marine assets such as merchant vessels, ferries or cruise ships?
  • Is there unusual diving activity?
  • Has someone stolen a marine facility vehicle, vehicle pass, personnel identification or personnel uniforms?
  • Do vessels appear to be purposely avoiding other vessels by changing direction?

Do not approach or challenge anyone you think is acting in a suspicious manner. Report suspicious activity to your local police service or call the RCMP at one of the numbers below. 

RCMP Contact Numbers for Reporting Suspicious Marine Activities

Newfoundland and Labrador
Nova Scotia
Prince Edward Island
New Brunswick
British Columbia
Northwest Territories

Respect and Protect Canada’s Waterways


Canada’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters are ours to share, so do your part to take good care of them. It is against the law to pollute the water with things like oil, garbage, hydrocarbons and untreated sewage in inland waters.

Canada has laws that protect our waterways and shorelines, and some of them apply to pleasure craft. It is your responsibility to make sure you know and obey the laws in force wherever you go boating.


Preventing Pollution in our Waterways

The Regulations for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships and for Dangerous Chemicals address major risks to the health of our waterways and shorelines such as sewage, garbage and hydrocarbons. Sewage contains, among other things, human or animal body waste, drainage and other waste from toilets.

boat at the dockThese regulations prohibit the use of freestanding portable toilets. They also require that boats fitted with toilets be equipped with either a holding tank or a marine sanitation device. If your boat was built before May 3, 2007, you must comply with these regulations by May 3, 2012. Boats built on or after May 3, 2007, must comply immediately.

Holding Tanks and Marine Sanitation Devices

Choose a holding tank or a marine sanitation device that works for you. A holding tank is only used to collect and store sewage or sewage sludge and must be emptied at approved pump-out facilities on dry land only. Be sure to follow pumping instructions and avoid using disinfectants, as they may harm the environment.

A marine sanitation device is designed to receive and treat sewage on board. Only sewage treated with a marine sanitation device that meets the standards set out in the regulations may be discharged in inland waters.

When planning your trip, check with local authorities for pump-out facility locations.

Reducing Pollution from Bilges

Oil, fuel, anti-freeze and transmission fluid are a few examples of pollutants that harm the environment when pumped overboard – usually by automatic bilge pumps. Bilge cleaners, even the biodegradable ones, just break down the oil into tiny, less visible droplets. Absorbent bilge cloths are very useful because they are designed to absorb petroleum products and repel water. Here are a few tips to help keep bilge pollution at a minimum:

  • Make sure your bilge is clean before turning on automatic bilge pumps. Only use them when needed and when the bilge contains only water. 
  • Use towels or bilge cloths to absorb oils, fuel, antifreeze and transmission fluid. Dispose of used towels or bilge cloths in an approved garbage container.

Stop the Spread of Invasive Species

Many have seen invasive species, such as zebra mussels and green crab, take over local waters. You can do your part by keeping your hull clean. This is very important if you operate your boat on a lake or river and then tow it over land to use in another area. Rinsing or cleaning your hull after use or before entering new waters helps to remove spores and other invasive organisms. Some communities require this as part of local bylaws.

The links we provide to external websites are provided for your convenience only. Be aware that they may not follow the Official Languages Act.


Use Environmentally Friendly Cleaners

Mix 30 ml of baking soda or borax, 30 ml of tea tree essential oil, 125 ml of vinegar, 15 ml of biodegradable dish soap and 2 litres of hot water. Spray on the surfaces to be cleaned.
Rub with baking soda. Rinse and polish with vinegar in hot water.
Pour 250 ml of vinegar in 2 litres of water
Pour 60 ml of baking soda in the drain, followed by 60 ml of vinegar. Let it rest for 15 minutes, then pour in a full kettle of boiling water.
Add 60 ml of borax and 30 ml of vinegar to 500 ml of hot water. Spray the mixture to eliminate germs.
Pour 125 ml of baking soda and 125 ml of vinegar into the toilet bowl. The foaming reaction cleans and deodorizes. Brush and flush.
Mix 2 ml of liquid soap, 45 ml of vinegar and 500 ml of water in a spray bottle. Use a cotton rag to clean and shine.
Mix 30 ml of edible linseed oil, 30 ml of vinegar and 60 ml of lemon juice in a glass pitcher. Rub the solution into the wood with a soft rag until it is clean. To store the solution, add a few drops of vitamin E from a capsule and cover.

Remember These Green Boating Tips 

 green boating

  • Make sure your engine is well maintained to reduce air pollution.
  • Use only paints approved for marine use.
  • When fuelling, do not top off tanks and clean up any spilled fuel.
  • Keep your bilge clean and do not pump oily water overboard.
  • Use bilge absorbents in place of detergents.
  • Do not pump your sewage over the side – use a holding tank.
  • Obey all sewage regulations.
  • Bring your garbage home (including cigarette butts) – do not litter.
  • Try not to use detergents – even biodegradable cleaners are hard on plants and animals that live in the water.
  • Avoid shoreline erosion – watch your wake and propeller wash.
  • Obey all speed limits for better fuel economy.
  • Report pollution when you see it.

If you accidentally pollute the water or you witness or see the result of someone else polluting, report it to a Government of Canada pollution prevention officer or call one of the following telephone numbers right away:

British Columbia and Yukon

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Northwest Territories and Nunavut


New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia

Newfoundland and Labrador

Vessel Operation Restrictions 

Local restrictions have been placed on some Canadian waterways to promote public safety. Some of these include a ban on power boats, maximum engine power limits, speed limits and a ban on recreational towing activities. These restrictions are listed in the schedules to the Vessel Operation Restriction Regulations. These restrictions are enforced by local authorities.

Province-Wide Shoreline Speed Limits

Some provinces have adopted speed limits of 10 km/h within 30 m (98’5”) of shore on all waters within their boundaries. This speed limit applies in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the inland waters of British Columbia and Nova Scotia. This limit is in effect whether it is posted or not. Exceptions include:

  • recreational towing where the boat follows a path at a 90° angle to the shore in an area designated by buoys for recreational towing;
  • rivers less than 100 m (328’) wide, as well as canals and buoyed channels; and
  • waters where another speed limit is set in a schedule to the regulations.

New Restrictions

If you feel a restriction is needed in your area, read the Local Authorities’ Guide to Boating Restrictions at www.boatingsafety.gc.ca. Before your request can be added to the Vessel Operation Restriction Regulations, the need for the restriction must be assessed and public consultations held at the local level. If successful, local authorities are responsible for all sign and buoy maintenance and replacement, including all costs. To learn more about the process, please see the Cabinet Directive on Streamlining Regulation at www.regulation.gc.ca.


Once a vessel operation restriction is in place, it can be enforced (in the form of tickets or summons) by:

  • police officers; and
  • persons identified in the regulations.

Reading a Restriction Sign

Vessel operation restriction signs come in five shapes. The colour of the frame is international orange. When part of a sign has a green border, a special condition applies to the restriction. The symbol tells you the type of restriction that applies. If the sign is arrow-shaped, the restriction applies in the direction of the arrow. Know what these signs mean. To learn more, check out the Boater’s Guide to Signage at www.boatingsafety.gc.ca.

no power vessels
No power-driven vessels
no internal combustion or steam engine permitted - image
No internal combustion or steam engine permitted
power limit - image
Power limit
no skiing
No skiing
standardized speed limit (normally 5, 10, 25, 40, 55) - image
Standardized speed limit (normally 5, 10, 25, 40, 55)
no regatta
No regatta
no vessels - image
No Vessels
no vessels - image
No power driven vessels in the direction indicated by the arrow
combined sign (no skiing and speed limit)
Combined sign (no skiing and speed limit)
no skiing north of the sign - image
No skiing north of the sign
no power driven vessels or vessels driven by electrical propulsion during the hours and on days in red - image
No power-driven vessels between the hours and days in red

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