Embrace America's Rivers

River Navigation Know How

On the page Reading the River, much is discussed about traveling remote rivers with little or no navigational aids. Those would be described as non-navigable rivers, even though they can be navigated in the right watercraft. The other side of river travel is trips on navigable rivers, which are maintained by navigation of commercial vessels. They are different from non-navigable rivers. This chapter is not an effort to teach a full course in river navigation. If one is serious about traveling rivers in a powerboat, he or she should take a course with a qualified organization, such as those the U.S. Power Squadron or the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary has available. What this chapter will do is provide a brief description, and provide some specific navigation information. It will also explain the hazards and advantages of cruising on a navigable waterway.


Today there are many navigational aids, with the most common being buoys. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains channel buoys, which are floating steel cans that indicate where the channel is located. In most cases the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is in charge of keeping an open channel of sufficient depth and width to accommodate commercial vessels. This depth can vary, but one can be certain that a buoyed channel has plenty of depth for any pleasure craft. The channel buoys are normally about nine feet tall and weigh around 600 pounds. They are anchored to the riverbed by a 1000-pound block of concrete, attached by cable or chain to the floating buoy. The buoys are color-coded to indicate the edges of the channel. The inland waterways system has green buoys along the right bank of the channel and red buoys along the left bank.


What are the right and left banks? All rivers have a designated left and right bank, and these are always the descending bank. In other words the left and right banks are as we face downriver. Right and left bank designation does not change in the upriver direction. We must simply be aware of that and think the opposite. What is along the left bank going downriver will still be along the left bank going upriver, but will be on our right side. Sound confusing? How about this! When mariners are returning from the sea, they go up the rivers to their home port. All red buoys are on the right while they are returning, hence the saying; "Red, Right, Return". If we stay between the red and green buoys we are assured of a deep channel. If there is only one color of buoys, we know that there is a channel between those buoys and the opposite shore. An example of that would be if we were traveling downriver and we see a line of green buoys, we would keep the buoys on our starboard (right) side, and be assured of deep water to the bank on our left (left bank). Green buoys are called cans and red buoys are called nuns. There are buoys for several other purposes, such as mooring and danger, but our main focus in this writing is channel buoys. Remember, however, that all buoys that are red and white are a warning of some kind and should be paid close attention to.

There are also signs along the river called daymarks. The daymarks are color- coded the same as buoys with the red-right-return rule. The passing daymarks have different shaped signs on them to indicate which side the channel is on, or if the channel crosses the river. This is more important for commercial vessels than with the more maneuverable pleasure craft. What is of interest to all is the secondary sign with numbers on it. This is the river mile marker. Anyone traveling a navigable river should have a chart of the river with him or her. The chart will show where the mile markers are located and provide a means of knowing where we are and how far it is to anywhere else on the river. The markers show the mile to the tenth, so one may show "123.5" as the mile. As an example of this, let's say we are traveling down the lower Mississippi River and are passing Memphis. We want to know how long it will take to get to Helena, Arkansas. Memphis is mile 736 and Helena is mile 663, which is 73 miles. Our boat will cruise at 12 mph, making our cruising time about six hours. On most rivers this is the mileage from the mouth of the river, which means that the numbers get smaller as one goes downriver. There are some exceptions, like the Ohio River. Mile zero is at the beginning of the Ohio at Pittsburgh where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet. The chart will also show the channel, tributaries, power lines, bridges, and all other details relative to the river.


Some daymarks are called lights because they have a flashing light on top. The color and flash sequence can tell the mariner something about the river ahead while cruising at night. The color green, as with buoys, tells us that the light is located along the right bank; red is along the left bank. The green light will be seen as a single intermittent flash, and the red will be seen as two intermittent flashes. Some have white lights flashing with the same pattern. What does all this tell us? While traveling on the river at night it is often difficult to distinguish the right bank from the left bank at a distance ahead of the vessel. Seeing the color and/or rate of flash with tell us in advance where the right and left banks are. These lights are usually found on the approach to or on river bends, with the white lights telling us that the channel is crossing toward or away from the outside of the bend. Knowing this will help to prepare for a bend in the river that cannot be seen. If we are traveling downriver at night and see a white double-flashing light, we know that there is a channel crossing toward the left, leading into a right bend. As we round the bend there will likely be green single-flashing lights to target as we round the bend. Most channels go toward the outside of bends. If we are traveling upriver into the same bend, the only difference is that we would know that we are coming into a left bend. If the lights were single-blinking and green in the bend it would be a left bend going downriver, or a right bend going upriver. Large towboats often target the lights in order to steer or flank around the bends. It is important for all mariners to know as much about an approaching bend at night in order to prepare for unseen oncoming traffic and also to prevent running aground.


Sometimes pleasure boaters pay no attention to the navigational aids indicating where the channel is, thinking that only deep-draft vessels have to worry about that. This is often true but when traffic is clear, it is wise to stay in the channel to avoid unseen dangers. Many rivers have rock wing dams. These are piles of rocks that run perpendicular to the shore to direct the flow of water toward the channel. During periods of low water, the dams can usually be seen. During normal and high water the rocks are submerged, sometimes just below the waterline. Hitting one can wreck a boat. Wing dams are shown on the charts and sometimes have a buoy at the end of them. Going on the wrong side of the buoy can be disastrous. The wing dams are another very good reason to have a chart and know where we are on the river. Many wing dams are also located on the riverbank side of an island, extending from the island to the shore. They are there to prevent the main channel from shifting to that side. When taking the off-channel side of an island, proceed with caution. During the day the turbulence created by the wing dams can be seen by an alert mariner, but at night they are much harder to spot. While traveling at night, one must also watch the navigational lights on other vessels to determine their course, and any special light signal that may be showing. This chapter will not get into details of onboard navigation lights, as anyone who owns a boat should already be familiar with them or learn them in the training recommended earlier.


We will discuss rights-of-way because there are some differences on rivers that are not present in lakes and open waters. Most of us know that when approaching an oncoming vessel, the general rule is to pass port to port. For pleasure craft this is true, but with another dimension. For commercial traffic on rivers the downriver traffic has the right-of-way. This is because large boats going downriver have less maneuverability than upbound vessels. With the current pushing the boat there is less resistance against the rudders, and they must outrun the current to steer. Large vessels also take much longer to stop when traveling with the current. With all motorized vessels, there is better steering control while pointed against the current. That is why vessels will often turn into the current to hold in place. It is also the reason we all turn upriver to dock or land a boat. What it all boils down to is that the least maneuverable vessel has the right-of-way. A collision between a ski boat and a boat under sail will almost certainly be considered the fault of the operator of the ski boat. We all know that a towboat with fifteen barges is not a very maneuverable vessel. It starts slow, turns slow, and stops slow. We all should know the danger of 25,000 tons of boat and material gliding in water. Pleasure craft are expected to stay out of their way from any direction. I have seen people in pleasure craft cut across the bow of towboats. The pilot of the towboat cannot see for several hundred feet in front of the lead barges, so if the pleasure craft should stall or flip over, there would be little chance of survival. Even if the towboat captain could see them, there would be no time to stop or turn away. There are other specific right-of-way aspects to be learned in a boating course. We should always relinquish our right-of-way to avoid a collision. This makes sense, because isn't it better to give up our right-of-way than our lives?

When traveling many navigable waterways we encounter locks and dams. Dams were built to hold water back to keep a pool stage of water deep enough to maintain a navigable channel. Some dams also provide hydroelectric power and flood control. When water is dammed, it will naturally have a higher level above the dam and a lower level below. In order to allow for vessels to pass through, locks are constructed to lower or raise boats from one level to the other. The locks and dams could best be described as watery staircases. Before the days of locks and dams, many rivers became too shallow to navigate during low-water periods. These structures allow for year-round navigation. When descending a river lock and dam and upon approaching a lock, the chamber will have been filled to the upper river level. This is done by the lockmaster opening valves in the bottom of the chamber that lead to the upper river. The water will flow into the chamber by gravity and stop filling when the level in the chamber is the same as the upriver side of the closed gate. The gate will then open and allow vessels to pass into the lock chamber. The gate behind the vessels will close, and then valves open to drain the chamber to the level on the lower side of the dam. The lower gate will open to allow vessels to proceed down the river. The procedure is simply reversed when locking through upriver.

It is a good idea to know locking procedures before taking any cruise that will require passing through a lock and dam. There are vessel priorities at locks. Some vessels will be allowed to pass others waiting to lock through. The highest priority is given to government vessels, such as U.S. Coast Guard and Corp of Engineers. The next in line are passenger boats on a schedule. Following are commercial boats, such as towboats, workboats, and commercial fishing boats. The last on the priority list is pleasure craft. Anyone in a pleasure craft, whether it is a canoe or a yacht, should be prepared for a wait. Boats with no marine radio must approach the lock guide wall and pull a cord to await instructions from a loudspeaker. It is advisable to have a VHS radio on any vessel for communications with locks, other vessels, marinas, weather, and emergencies. By hailing the lockmaster by radio, one can call in advance of arrival to get an idea of lock conditions and traffic, along with advice on possible delays. Very often the lockmaster may advise the boater that the lock is opening soon on their side and to come on in. Without calling in advance one stands a greater chance of just missing the closing of the gate and must wait until the next opportunity. That is, unless a towboat comes along, then the wait may be even longer. Often more than one boat is invited into the chamber; pleasure craft are usually grouped together. Pleasure craft may also lock through with a commercial vessel if there is room and the pilot of the commercial boat gives his consent. An important thing to remember about locking is that the lockmaster is truly the master of his domain. It is this person who calls the shots and can help make the locking a pleasurable experience with minimal wait, or make you jump through hoops with maximum wait. The lockmaster must be treated with respect, so it is wise to be humble and not demanding.

Now that the basics of locks have been covered, following are actual procedures:

  1. Call ahead by stating the lock name and/or number. State your type of vessel, boat name, direction being traveled, location, and that you are requesting to lock through. An example might be, "Markland Lock, this is the pleasure craft Key West, southbound at mile 363 requesting to lock through.” The lockmaster may be busy and not respond immediately, so be patient. If there is still no response after a reasonable time, repeat the request.

  2. If you have no marine radio, go to the end of the lock guide wall and pull the identified cord. This will signal the lockhouse that someone is requesting to lock through. Wait for instructions to be given on a loudspeaker.

  3. If your vessel is close to the lock gate, the lockmaster may advise you to hold up off to the side of the guide wall, as there may be a vessel coming toward you in the chamber and you would be in the way. You may also have to wait due to the priorities discussed earlier.

  4. Just like roads there will be a red light and a green light. Always wait for the lock gates to open completely and for a green light before entering, unless instructed otherwise by the lockmaster.

  5. Proceed into the lock slowly, as all locks are no-wake zones. Someone will wave you over, or tell you which side of the lock chamber to secure the boat to. Make certain that anyone outside the cabin of the boat or in an open boat has a life preserver on. This is required. Also, no smoking is allowed in the locks.

  6. Have boat fenders ready to drop in place on the side of the boat that will be secured to the lock wall. The walls are rough concrete and can damage a boat. Also, have a pole or paddle to push against the wall during locking to keep the boat away from the wall as much as possible.

  7. There are different ways to secure boats in locks, depending on how they are constructed and the preference of the lockmaster. Some will pay out one or two lines to you for holding, to keep the boat stable and close to the wall while the water is filling or draining. Do not tie the lines to any part of the boat. You must be able to control the slack and tension of the line by hand. If you are locking down, you will pay out line as the water drops. If you are locking up, you will take slack out of the line as the water rises. Some locks have floating pins to tie off to. The pins are located in vertical slots in the lock wall. As the water rises or falls the pins and your boat will rise or fall with the water while remaining secured. Do not draw the line tight from the floating pin to your boat. Leave some slack so that you can keep the boat from scraping along the lock wall as the water level changes. Sometimes the pins will temporarily hang up in the slot. Larger boats will pull it loose as the water rises or falls. Smaller boats may tip if this happens, so be ready to unhook the line if necessary. The third method of securing will be to not secure the boat at all. The lockmaster may instruct you to stay in the middle of the lock chamber while under power and keep the boat stable with the propellers, while the water level changes.

  8. Do not unhook the boat, let go of the line, or start the engine until instructed to do so, or the gate has opened completely and you hear a blast signal. Proceed out of the lock slowly and continue slow ahead until you have reached the end of the guide wall or signs indicting “No Wake” have ended. 


Locking through is not as scary as it may sound. After a few times, one becomes accustomed to it but the first time is always exciting. I am reminded of the day I was locking through on the Illinois River. The lockmaster had put several pleasure craft in the chamber at the same time. We were going downriver and were provided lines to pay out as the water and our boats lowered. A man in a motorsailer was directly in front of my cruiser. He tied the line off to a kevel on the stern of his boat, and then busied himself with something in the cabin. The first thing I noticed was that the water and my boat were going down, but the aft section of the sailboat was not going down. He finally noticed the list to the bow end and came running out to untie the line. By then the rope had so much pressure on it that he could not get it to release from the kevel. I was amazed that the kevel had not torn loose from the decking. I yelled to the rattled sailor to cut the line. I could hardly believe it when he said he had no knife. A sailor with no knife? I reached in my pocket and removed my knife, gave it a toss that I was proud of as it landed in his hands, all while his boat stern was still rising. His nervous fingers finally got the knife blade open and slashed the line. The boat came down with a tremendous splash, creating a wake that knocked the other boats in the chamber around. He thanked me and we discussed how he had learned some lessons that day. Don't tie the line to your boat while locking and always have a knife handy. We were all impressed with the construction of the decking and strength of the kevel mount to lift that much weight.


Some navigable waterways, such as the lower Mississippi, have few marinas to purchase fuel or to dock for the night. It is advisable to purchase a cruising guide for the rivers that will be traveled. A few are available that will provide that information, along with other tips about a section of river. I prefer to spend my nights in remote locations than to tie off to a dock at a busy marina. It is important to select the right place to do so. This is pretty easy if the vessel is a canoe, as it can easily be pulled from the water. For motorcraft, one needs to be careful not to anchor or ground the boat at a location that is likely to have a lot of wake from passing vessels. The wake action can drive the boat farther onto shore and cause the boat to be stuck by morning. Large wakes can also break a boat loose from the mooring.


When I am seeking a place to spend the night, I will look primarily for two things. A non-navigable tributary provides safe anchorage with no commercial vessels passing by. Care must be taken when entering the tributary, not to run aground or hit a submerged object. Proceed slowly. The other option is the back side of an island, away from the channel. The same caution should be observed while entering this type of area. One can set an anchor or carefully ground the boat and tie off to a tree. Often the riverbank and water depth will determine the choice. An accessible tree-lined steep bank will provide the most stable anchorage. The boat can be tied to a tree from the bow, and from the stern. This will keep the boat against the bank and keep the stern from swinging out. If the river is falling, or one doesn't know if it is rising, stationary, or falling, check the river’s edge on a regular basis to make sure that the water is not going out from under the boat. We have all heard of boats running aground. This would be a case where the ground runs aboat. A stick or rock placed at the water’s edge is the best method for gauging this.


I was on the Ohio River one day and came upon three men who had landed for the night on a beach on the channel side of the river. During the night they not only had a lot of wakes pushing against the boat, but a falling river. By morning the bow of the boat was sitting high and dry and listing. The outdrive was still in the water but could never pull the boat back into the water. Upon talking to them, I was surprised that they had slept through it all but then not so surprised when I saw the litter from their evening's ardent spirits. My friend and I stopped to help and we all worked for hours digging a canal under the boat to the water’s edge. That, along with a great deal of grunt labor, finally got the old Starcraft cruiser back into the river. They were grateful for the help and preparing to leave when I told them that our work was not done yet. I could not leave this place with the damaged beach and litter. I explained to them that everyone should leave no trace that they were there. They were shamed into pitching in and restoring the beach. Then they collected their litter before heading down the river, with a couple of lessons learned.


Sometimes we can find neither an island nor a tributary, but must sleep. Look for a steep bank, which is an indication that the water is deep along the shore, then tie off the boat parallel to the bank with two lines. This will prevent possible damage to the bow and keep the boat from driving into the bank. The night may be spent with a little rockin' and rollin'. Abandoned piers are good for mooring, as long as there are no signs to indicate that it is not permitted. Public landings, docks, and piers can be used for overnight stays as long as there are no signs indicating that it is not allowed. Never tie-off a watercraft to another vessel without permission. Never land at an active commercial pier, as you may get woken up in the most annoying way an aggravated towboat pilot can think of. Never land at a private dock without permission. All this changes in emergencies. In an emergency, make a landing at the nearest available safe place.


Cruising on navigable waterways can be an enjoyable and safe journey. One must be well equipped, respectful to other traffic, follow the rules, and most important-be alert. I have spoken of priorities in locks and rights-of-way on the river that must be observed, but everyone and every type of vessel has a right to be there. Sometimes one must be very patient. If you are a horn-honking, tailgating, aggressive driver in your car, you had better change your attitude or stay off navigable rivers.

Following are links to pdf downloads provided by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers that may be helpful