Colliding with another boat is a hair-raising and potentially life-threatening experience. Ensuring you observe marine traffic at all times when leaving and arriving at the harbor or marina is crucial for the safety of your crew, your boat, and others around you.
Accidents can happen in inland waters like the Ozarks or ocean waterways and marinas. The US Coast Guard reports around 5,250+ accidents each year, involving 767 deaths and 3,191 injuries. The only way to prevent yourself from becoming another statistic is to improve your situational awareness when you enter areas with other boats.
We put together this guide to give you everything you need to know to stay safe out on the water and avoid collisions with other boats.
- Navigation Basics for Yachts and Boats
- What are the Regulations Applicable when Sailboats Meet?
- Navigational Aids to Prevent Collisions
- Step-by-Step Action Plan to Avoiding Boat Collisions
- In Closing – Key Takeaways
Understanding the navigation basics is essential for new boat owners. It’s a good idea to take a boating safety course at the US Coast Guard to learn the basics. However, if you’re inland, you might not have that option.
If that’s the case, take time to watch a few YouTube videos around launching and retrieving your boat. Learn what you can before you ever decide to set out for the lake or river. We assure you that the investment of your time will pay off when you arrive at the shoreline.
During your research, you’ll probably come across the following terms referring to the orientation of your boat in the water.
- Bow – The front of the boat.
- Stern – The rear of the boat.
- Starboard – The right side of the boat when facing the bow.
- Portside – The left side of the boat when facing the bow.
- Give-way vessel – The boat that moves to avoid the stand-on vessel.
- Stand-on vessel – The boat that maintains course and speed.
These terms are universal and apply in all waters across the world. They help you navigate tight spots in the harbor and marina, increasing your situational awareness of what’s happening in the water around you.
If two boats meet in the water, they must adhere to the following rules surrounding right-of-way.
The stand-on-vessel approaches the other boat on the starboard side, maintaining course. The give-way-on-vessel is on the port side and must make way for the oncoming boat.
Observations for overtaking vessels.
- Boats intending to overtake other vessels are “give-way-vessels.”
- Give-way vessels must take the necessary actions to avoid stand-on-vessels, maintaining course and speed.
- Give-way vessels have the right to overtake from any side. Use one short blast of the horn when you’re overtaking on the starboard side and two on the port side.
- When overtaking on the port side of another craft, two short sound signals should be
- The stand-on-vessel will signal confirmation of your announcement by returning the same signal.
Observations for head-to-head encounters.
- Both boats need to pass over the port-side.
- Both vessels are responsible for avoiding collisions.
What are the Regulations Applicable when Sailboats Meet?
Encounters Between Motor Boats and Sailboats
Sailboats always have right-of-way over motorized boats. Motorboats must always give way to the yacht or sailboat, as the sailboat takes the role of the give-way vessel when overtaking.
Encounters Between Two Sailboats
The wind direction plays the most significant role in choosing the stand-on and give-way vessels in the encounter. Typically, the boat with the favorable wind will move around the other.
- The give-way vessel has the wind port side to the vessel.
- The stand-on vessel has wind on its starboard side.
If the sailboats have the wind on the same side, the give-way vessel is closest to the source.
It’s important to note that other boats apart from sailboats have automatic right-of-way over motorized boats in all conditions.
- Damaged boats.
- Commercial vessels.
- Fishing boats.
While these rules are guidelines, they are not set in stone. You can break them if the situation calls for it and there is no pragmatic solution.
Fortunately, we live in the age of technology, which helps tremendously with navigation. Navigation systems like “Aids To Navigation” (ATONs) assist with the vessel’s safe navigation at sea and on the lake.
These tools are useful for capturing electronic signals, increasing visibility, and gaining auditory attention. Here are a few examples of ATONs.
- Radio and day beacons.
- Fog signals and lights.
- Lightships and lighthouses.
Look out for ATONs around ports, marinas, and harbors, and pay attention to your surroundings at all times. Accidents are a more common occurrence in low light conditions, especially when speed is involved in the situation. Keep it slow and stay aware of your surroundings at all times.
Step-by-Step Action Plan to Avoiding Boat Collisions
Follow this step-by-step action plan to avoid boat collisions at sea, in the harbor, marina, or on the lake or river.
Step 1 – Stay Alert and Aware
The driver and passengers should all pay attention to their surroundings when approaching other boats. It’s not a time for people to check their phones or chat. The captain should appoint a crew member to keep a lookout behind them while focusing on the forward action.
Step 2 – Avoid Shipping Lanes
Shipping lanes are dedicated passageways for commercial shipping vessels. They appear on charts as magenta-colored swaths. The shipping lanes are five miles wide, and you need to stay out of them, or you risk an altercation with the US Coast Guard and possible fines.
Step 3 – Understand Speed and Time
Drivers need to understand boat speed and how it translates to movement on the water. If there is a commercial ship on the horizon and it’s approaching you moving at 30-knots, it’s only going to take 15-minutes to reach you. Never overtake crossing vessels and stay safe.
Step 4 – Visibility Determines Speed and Caution
Small boats are harder to see at night and in low-visibility conditions. Make sure you have running lights working around the clock to create better awareness of your boat. Installing a radar reflector helps other radar systems pick up your vessel if it’s on course to collide with you. Automatic Identification System (AIS) capability can prevent accidents at sea and in the harbor.
Step 5 – Learn to Use the VHF Radio
The marine radio is a critical communications tool for moving around the marina and the harbor. Your radio operates on several channels, allowing you to raise other vessels in the area. Channel 16 gives you a direct emergency line to the US Coast Guard in an emergency.
Step 6 – Sail When Sober
Never go out on your boat when you’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Not only is it illegal, but you’re putting your life and others at risk. How would you feel if you caused a fatal accident where you survived but killed several other people? Only sail sober and leave the intoxicants at home. It’s also important to get enough sleep, and you’re more likely to be less aware of your surroundings when you’re feeling fatigued.
Step 7 – Expect the Unexpected
You never know what’s going to go down in the water. From the marina to the lake, there’s always the potential for disaster to occur at any given time. We’re not telling you to worry about things every minute of the day on the lake or out on the ocean. However, safety and situational awareness should always be at the back of your mind.
Step 8 – Use Your Common Sense
Most of the etiquette and guidelines around safe sailing and boating are common sense. If you’re doing tow sports like wakeboarding, make sure you stay 100-feet from the shoreline and don’t do it near swimming areas or designated shipping lanes. Make it a habit of checking all around you frequently when maneuvering through the harbor and marina.
Step 9 – A Glossary to Sound Signals
Sound signals are very beneficial for maritime communications around harbors and marinas. Here’s a quick guide on how to use the horn on your boat to communicate with other vessels in the immediate area.
- A single blast held for a second – pass on the port side.
- Two short bursts – Passing on the port side.
- Three quick blasts – Engine in reverse.
- Five short shots – Danger, look out around you.
- Extended blast for longer than 6-seconds – When leaving and entering obstructed sections.
- Extended burst every two minutes – When moving in low-visibility conditions.
- An extended blast followed by two short blasts every two minutes – Sailboat crossing in low visibility.
In Closing – Key Takeaways
- Your safety at sea or on the lake depends on your situational awareness.
- Learn the basics of orientation and navigation to help you navigate around other vessels.
- Take a boat safety course with the US Coast Guard if you can.
- Learn the ATONs safety signals and where to look for them.
- Increase the visibility of your vessel in low light conditions.
- Install a VHF Marine radio to your boat to improve communications.
- Make sure you have the right safety gear on board.
- Ensure passengers wear PFDs at all times.
- Ensure the passengers remain undistracted around other vessels.