What Should You Do To Avoid Colliding With Another Boat?

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on December 19, 2022. In Boats

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Boat collisions can happen for a number of reasons that include:

  • Operator error stemming from
    • Inexperience
    • Intoxication
    • Lack of attention
    • Rules violation
  • Mechanical error
  • Poor weather
  • Hazardous water conditions which include obstructions, rough seas or the wake of other vessels
  • Excessive speed

Each of these can be dealt with in different ways but the basic standard for avoiding incidents is to ensure that you, as the boat operator, are clear-headed, well-informed, and paying attention to your vessel and the surrounding waters. Keep in mind, all of those things that can lead to a collision don’t have to affect you at all, they can affect the operator of a boat that ends up colliding with you.

Everything beyond being observant can aid in ensuring a safe voyage but that is the basic standard you want to meet for a safe boating experience. And with that in mind, let’s delve into the details that will ensure you avoid collisions on the water. 

Watch for Other Boats

This sounds terribly simplistic but it’s the best thing to do and it’s your number one tool for maintaining a safe time on the water. As a boat operator you want to have a clean and unobstructed view of the water all around your vessel. This allows you to see any other boats that may be approaching from any direction. 

When you do have an eye on another boat, make sure you observe any signals they may be making that indicate they are in trouble, they intend to pass you by, or they may be overtaking you. Listen for sound signals and also watch the visual signals they provide. Part of this will involve making sure you understand those rules of navigation so you can interpret lights and sounds to know what they mean. 

Regardless of signals and rules, however, common sense rules above all on the water. It’s you duty to do whatever necessary to avoid a collision and that may mean, on occasion, operating against the rules. You can never 100% rely on another boat to do what they’re “supposed to.” 

You don’t know the headspace of another boat operator. They could be inexperienced, they could be intoxicated or they could be in the middle of a medical emergency. All of those could cause a boat to operate outside of what you consider normal and become a risk. So that’s why you need to observe closely and always use some caution when getting close to another vessel, especially if things seem out of the ordinary.

If you are about to overtake, be overtaken, or cross paths with a vessel and they are unable to return the signals that you provide, then definitely lower your speed and give a wide berth as you maneuver around them. If necessary or possible, you can provide aid if the situation merits it, but otherwise do what you can to stay out of the way and keep them out of your way as well.

If you have passengers on the boat with you, having a lookout is always a good idea as well. Another set of eyes can help reduce the potential for any future accidents.

Avoid Floating Debris

Floating debris is potentially an issue because you can never predict when something will show up. That said, there are a few ways to help limit the potential dangers that floating debris could present for you. 

First and foremost, be aware that floating debris is far more likely after a storm. Wind, rain and waves can churn up the bottom and disturb sunken debris as well as stuff that may have previously been lodged near shore or against something, safely out of the way. A storm can release all of this into the open water again. 

In addition, bad storms are obviously more able to destroy or otherwise disturb other vessels or things near the water. That, in turn, means more debris can end up in the water and find its way to your path. So if you’re out on the water within a day or so of a serious storm, definitely make sure you’re using even more caution than you normally would. 

When debris is in the water it can ironically make boaters more reckless than normal. This is especially dangerous in tighter areas like in the harbor or a canal. In an effort to avoid some floating trash or storm debris, boaters may lose focus on where other vessels and dangers are around them because their attention is now divided. 

If you encounter debris and other boaters are around at the same time, you’ll need to be extra cautious as there are multiple factors at play which can be taking not just your focus but the focus of those other boats.

How to Avoid a Fixed or Floating Object

By Ed Dunens – Sea anchor, CC BY 2.0,

It’s hard to predict something like a random floating object in the water because it’s random, of course. Your fixed objects are going to be easier to watch out for because these should hopefully already be known and marked. Things like rocks, reefs and wrecks will likely have been discovered long before you came along. Make sure you pay attention to warning buoys that indicate where hidden obstructions may be so you can easily navigate around them.

It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with charts in any given area so you can see where obstructions and other fixed points have been noted, and you can see if the depth of the water can present a risk to you and your boat at any particular point. 

Still, your best defense will always be to keep a sharp watch. Never let yourself get so distracted you can’t see what’s ahead of you and if you are in a situation with limited visibility or any issue that’s hindering your ability to fully observe your surroundings, reduce speed and proceed with caution.

Use navigation aids around those fixed objects to help you avoid not just the fixed object but other boaters as well, since you should both be following the rules relating how to safely pass the danger by and avoiding each other in the process. 

Never Operate Your Boat When Tired or Inebriated

Far too often, boaters don’t respect their boats like they do cars. And we already know how often people use cars irresponsibly. But it tends to be worse on the water. According tot he Coast Guard, in 2020, alcohol was a contributing factor to more boating deaths than any other single factor. In general, statistics show that alcohol and drug use contribute to around half of all boating accidents. And inattention, often as a result of being tired or intoxicated, was the single leading cause of accidents in 2020.

Because boating is considered a leisure time activity, many operators won’t take it seriously. They want to relax and have a good time with their passengers, but that can’t be done while you’re also operating the vessel. You need to make sure you’re keeping a clear head and paying attention, you have someone else on board who can be the designated driver if necessary, or that you remain stationary for a long enough time that you can sober up before operating the boat again. 

Maintain Safe Speeds

In addition to paying attention, you need to operate at safe speeds. The faster you go, the less time you have to react to dangerous situations. Also, the more likely you are to suffer worse damage if something does go wrong. Other boaters are expecting you to operate within a range of normal speeds as well. When you operate too fast, and when other boaters do, it’s not just your vessel that becomes a danger but potentially the wake as well. 

Safe speeds change based on conditions. If you’re out on the open sea all alone, you can push your engines a little harder. But if you’re in an area with other boats, you’ll want to slow things down a little. This also applies if the weather is turning bad, it’s getting dark or there’s limited visibility, the wind is picking up and even if there are shifts in currents.

Use Caution in Poor Conditions

The best thing to do in heavy fog, rain, rough seas and stormy weather is to return to shore. That said, if you are caught in those conditions with limited visibility you need to slow your speed and always be cautious. Make use of sound signals in limited visibility. You are required to indicate your presence at intervals of no more than two minutes whether you are underway or not so that other vessels can listen and avoid you.

If you’re anchor, ring your bell every minute to indicate your position. A powered vessel underway in fog needs to emit one long blast every two minutes. If powered but not underway, it’s two short blasts.

Most people consider poor visibility conditions only as things like darkness, fog and bad weather. Keep in mind that visibility can also suffer on a bright sunny day, in particular if you are traveling towards the sun. The sun’s glare off the water can easily obscure another vessel and, in turn, it can obscure your own from their sight. Try to avoid traveling directly into the sun whenever possible. Do your best to make sure you’re highly visible to other vessels. 

Give Room to Tug Boats and Other Vessels Towing or Pushing

A tugboat may be pulling a lot of weight behind it on a towline and the line itself can be surprisingly long. It’s also very possible that the line is below the surface of the water. For that reason, if you ever come across a tugboat in the water, you don’t want to pass directly behind it unless and until you’re positive there’s nothing being towed behind it.

Likewise, if a vessel is pushing something else it’s going to have obstructed visibility, so you want to make sure you give a wide distance so there’s no chance that the other vessel, unable to see where you are, pushes too close to you. 

Avoid Shipping Lanes

Big ships use shipping lanes and those are not places you want to get caught in a small, recreational vessel like a fishing boat or canoe by any means. These massive ships do not have the maneuverability to stop and work around small vessels, nor do they have the ability to readily see small vessels in their path, either. In addition, they have the right of way in their lanes and all of that means shipping lanes are to be avoided at all costs.

Shipping lanes are marked on charts and they usually take up about five miles of space across. That can take a considerable length of time to cross in smaller vessels, as much as an hour. That means you need to be using your radar and paying attention to what’s around if and when you do come to a shipping lane. Cross only at a 90 degree angle to make the absolute shortest trip possible and you can’t stop for any reason inside of a shipping lane.

If you find a large vessel bearing down on you in a shipping lane remember that it may not be able to see you, it may not be able to reduce speed, and it’s expecting to have the right of way. If you hear a ship in one of these lanes emit 5 short warning blasts it indicates that you need to get out of the way immediately and are in immediate danger.

Pay Attention to Navigation Aids

Navigation aids are some of the easiest and most reliable tools for keeping you and others safe on the water. Pay attention to the buoys, known as lateral markers, that help you navigate out to see and back towards shore. The lights on these markers indicate on which side you should pass and that, in turn, ensures you’ll be avoiding other boats as well.

Additional markers will let you know about safe speeds, swimming areas, hidden dangers and more. These are designed to keep you and everyone else safe so familiarize yourself with what the different kinds mean.

Make sure your own aids like running lights are in good working order.

Keep Up To Date on the Rules

In much the same way you need to learn about the rules of the road for driving a car, you need to be sure you understand the rules of the road for boat navigation. This is integral in dealing with other vessels on the water because the sound and visual signals another boat may provide, and the ones they expect you to provide, will not mean much if you have no idea what they represent. Knowing how to deal with a crossing vessel, congested traffic and so on are key to avoiding collisions.

You need to know when you’re the stand on vessel or the give way vessel and how to act in each case. The rules can change for sail boats, motor boats and things like rowing boats, so you need to be aware.

If you are in a power drive vessel and you are meeting another power driven vessel head on, neither of you qualifies as the stand on vessel and you must both give way. Both of you should pass to the right or starboard side after making a sound signal indicating to do so. When overtaking, the vessel being overtaken becomes the stand on, even if it is a powered vessel. 

When a power driven vessel meets a sailing vessel head on, the power driven vessel is always the give way vessel and the sailing vessel is the stand on. The meeting of sailing vessels can be slightly more confusing for boaters but just remember, again, the overtaking vessel is always the give way vessel. Otherwise, if you’re meeting another sailing vessel in any other situation, the sailing vessel with wind to the port side is the give way vessel. If both boats have wind on the same side, then the upwind vessel is the give way. 

Use sound signals and visual signals to indicate your intent to other boaters when you encounter them.

The Bottom Line

There are many tips and methods you can use to keep yourself away from other vessels and avoid a collision at sea. Your best weapon is always to be observant, to keep an eye out for other boats and to make sure they are easily able to see you as well. Use caution anytime you are around other boaters and never assume that they are going to always follow the rules when passing you or operating in your area. Remember that common sense isn’t always all that common and your goal is to do whatever necessary when on the water to avoid an accident and keep yourself, your boat and your crew safe, as well as keeping other boaters safe as well. 

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.


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