How Navigate Your Boat – 5 Tips For Marine Navigation

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One of the biggest reasons why people feel too intimidated to learn pilot a boat isn’t the actual act of piloting itself. It’s learning how to navigate the waters, which can be downright scary if you’re not used to it.

However, the good news is that you can actually take out your boat with minimal navigation knowledge and skills! We’re here to show you exactly how to do so, so you can be confident with your skills and keep you and everyone else on board safe.

1. Traditional Navigation

Later on we’re going to discuss some more modern technological tools that make navigations much easier. However, we didn’t have these just a few decades ago. Then, how is it that people managed to sail the 7 seas thousands of years ago? They used various methods aside from using their own eyes to tell where to go.

Compass – This is still an incredibly valuable tool today, no matter where you are. These tell you in which direction you’re heading: North, South, East, West, or somewhere in-between. On the compass, you’ll get a full 360 degrees, with 0 degrees to the north, and 180 degrees to the south. This is an excellent way of telling the general direction you’re heading in quickly but aren’t ideal for precision, such as avoiding small groups of rocks.

Charts – Charts, aka nautical maps are just like any road map, except it’s water instead of highway. Just remember you’ll need an erasable pencil so you can mark important data such as your speed, location, bearings, etc.

2. Locating Your Position

To know where you’re going, you first have to know where you are currently! If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to simply look out at what’s outside your boat and in the distance. You can use what you see and look at the chart to know where you are.

To help even more and to see at greater distances, grab yourself a pair of marine binoculars. These are made to be water resistant and will last for long periods of time, even when subjected to saltwater.

Triangulate your position by finding 3 visible landmarks that are also shown on your chart. The further apart they are from each other, the more accurate you’re going to be. Lighthouses, radio towers, land points, etc. are all helpful examples.

Next, you’ll need to grab your hand-bearing compass to place a bearing at the first landmark. Then, take your parallel rules on the char’ts compass rose and line it up to match the degree of the bearing you shot. Pay attention to the inner magnetic ring as your compass points to magnetic north instead of true north.

Then walk the rules along the chart, and once the edge of your parallel rule comes across the landmark, take your pencil, tracing a line down the edge of the rule.

You’ll need to do this for the other two landmarks now. If all 3 lines intersect, you’ll know where you’re located.

3. Creating a Route with Bearings

Creating a route is essential to get to where you want to go safely and efficiently. If you’re traveling in a straight line with zero obstacles in your way, then you won’t need to do this. However, that’s almost never the case. Fortunately, this is pretty simple to learn.

Lay your parallel rules at your starting position, line the edge along the path you’d like to sail on, drawing a straight line. Walk the rules until the edge of it crosses with the center of the compass rose on your chart. Note the bearing that corresponds with that line, and write down the bearing next to the line. That’s the first “leg” of your adventure.

Place the parallel rules along the next leg, repeating the process. Do this until you draw the last leg which intersects with your destination!

4. GPS Chartplotter

A GPS chartplotter is an incredibly useful tool that we recommend you have if you’re going to be out sailing. These combine GPS satellite navigation along with charts of the body of water you’re in and the coastline. This allows you to accurately locate where you are as well as track how fast you’re traveling, and where.

They’re pretty easy to get the hang of. All you have to do is set a waypoint in the water and navigate towards it! While each model and manufacturer varies slightly, here’s a general guide of how to set it up:

  1. Enter the waypoint – You can usually do this by marking where you’re currently located or entering in the coordinates of your location.
  2. Navigate to the waypoint.

If you’re traveling in shallow or complicated waters, try zooming your chartplotter in as far as it’ll let you. Why? So the graphic representation of your vessel will be more accurate relative to where you are.

Although these devices are very useful and much less time-consuming and with less room for error, we always recommend keeping a compass and paper charts on board. As it is an electronic device, that means it is subject to failure at times. Don’t let this be your only option for knowing where you’re going!


While not used for navigation, be sure you have a VHF radio on board. This allows you to receive important marine announcements and communicate with other boaters.Now that you know all about how to navigate on your boat, are you ready to get out on the water?

We sure hope that our guide has made you more confident, now that you are aware of the best ways to get from point A to point B safely. You can never have too many methods or tools on board, so use whatever works best for you.

Just make sure you always have a back up in case your first method isn’t working out. Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll see you again soon. Happy boating!

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Richard Remick

Richard is the founder and the chief editor of Outside Pursuits. Passionate about the great outdoors, Richard spends much of his time in Colorado enjoying skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, cycling, hiking, and camping. When at home in Florida, he is most often found in the water. He loves water sports such as paddle boarding, kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. He is a certified scuba diver. Because of his wealth of knowledge and experience, Richard has been invited to contribute articles to many outdoor-focused websites, such as Florida Rambler, and has been profiled on travel websites such as JohnnyJet.

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