Knowing what you should do to avoid colliding with another boat isn’t just important to pass a boating examination test. This knowledge will help you stay safe on the water and be a responsible boat owner. 

Regardless of what made you ask the question of what you can do to avoid collisions, we’re glad you’re here. There is a lot to take in when learning to drive a boat, such as which way to turn when approaching another boat. We want you and all of your passengers to be safe while boating so you can enjoy a day of wakeboarding, tubing, or feeling the wind and sun on your face. 

What Should You Do to Avoid Colliding With Another Boat?

To start off, here are some quick tips that you should memorize to avoid collisions with another boat. 

  • Do not drive if you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or if you are drowsy
  • Follow the rules of navigation
  • Pay attention to aids to navigation
  • Designate someone to look out for floating debris and other boats, and be attentive yourself
  • Maintain a safe speed, particularly at night and in congested areas
  • Look in all directions before turning 
  • Be cautious when driving towards the sun’s glare on the water
  • After heavy rainfall, be especially watchful of floating debris 

You should always follow these rules when operating a boat, no matter where or when you are driving. Continue reading to learn more about the above rules.

What Are the Rules of Navigation for Boats?

The rules of navigation for boats are similar to the rules of the road. When everyone follows them, it’s easy to know what you should do to avoid colliding with other boats on the water. But before we explain the rules, you first need to know some basic terms.

Vessel: Any watercraft or other object used — or capable of being used — as a means of transportation. This can include motor and sail boats, paddleboards, and even tubes.

Port side: The left side of the boat when the observer is looking forward toward the bow

Starboard side: The right side of the boat when the observer is looking forward toward the bow

Stern: The rear part of the boat

Stand-on vessel: The vessel that should maintain course and speed

Give-way vessel: The vessel that should take action to maneuver in order to avoid the stand-on vessel 

Now that we’ve cleared up what each of these terms mean, we can discuss what action you should take when you meet another boat on the water. 

When the path of two boats are expected to intersect if they continue driving straight, there are two rules:

  1. If your boat is approaching another boat from its starboard side, you are the stand-on vessel. Keep your course.
  2. If your boat is approaching another boat from its port side, they are the stand-on vessel. They keep their course and you take action to avoid them.

When one boat is overtaking another boat, these are the rules:

  1. The vessel wanting to overtake is the give-way vessel, while the other is the stand-on vessel.
  2. The give-way vessel must take early and substantial action in order to avoid the stand-on vessel, which should maintain its course and speed.
  3. The give-way vessel can overtake the stand-on vessel on either side.

There is one more rule boat drivers should be aware of when overtaking another boat. If you are overtaking on the starboard side of the other vessel, let the other boat know by using one short sound signal. If you are overtaking on the port side of the other vessel, use two short sound signals. The vessel being overtaken should return the sound signal to communicate understanding. 

When two boats are meeting head-on, these are the rules: 

  1. The boats should pass port side to port side.
  2. Both boats must take action to avoid each other.

Two Power-Driven Vessel Encounter

With two motorized boats, the previous rules of crossing and overtaking apply. These rules can be simplified to the following: When two power-driven vessels meet on the water, boat drivers should always give way to the boat on the starboard side. 

Power-Driven Vessel and Sailboat Encounter

When a motorized boat encounters a sailboat, the sailboat is almost always the stand-on vessel. The power-driven vessel must give way. However, the sailboat could be considered the give-way vessel if it is overtaking another vessel. A sailboat might also be considered the give-way vessel in a narrow channel when a motor boat cannot easily move around. 

Two Sailboat Encounter

Sailboats need to be aware of the direction of the wind in order to safely maneuver around each other. These are the rules for sailboat encounters:

  • The sailboat with the wind on the port side is the give-way vessel.
  • The sailboat with the wind on the starboard side is the stand-on vessel.
  • In a situation where both boats are receiving the wind on the same side, the sailboat closest to the wind, or upwind, is the give-way boat and the one further from the wind, or downwind, is the stand-on boat.

One general rule of thumb is that vessels that are not as maneuverable always have the right of way over motor boats. These vessels include:

  • Sailboats
  • Kayaks
  • Canoes
  • Rowing boats
  • Towing boats
  • Commercial fishing boats
  • Broken boats or other vessels

When in doubt, yield to other vessels to avoid a collision, even if you have to break a navigation rule. Use your best judgement to keep all passengers in the boat safe.

How to Use Sound Signals

Communication is essential in order to avoid collisions with other vessels. Watercrafts should always have an efficient, quickly accessible sound signalling device on board. Sound signals should be used when power-driven vessels encounter each other within one half mile. They can also be used when there is poor visibility.

This is what each sound signal means:

  • One short blast for one second: I want to pass on the port side
  • Two short blasts: I want to pass on the starboard side
  • Three short blasts: The engine is in reverse
  • Five short blasts: Danger, or you don’t understand the approaching boat’s intentions
  • Single prolonged blast for four to six seconds: You are entering or leaving a blind turn, exiting a dock or berth, or approaching an obstructed area
  • Single prolonged blast every two minutes: A power-driven vessel is operating in low visibility
  • Single prolonged blast and two short blasts every two minutes: A sailing vessel is operating in low visibility

Make sure you have a way to properly produce sound signals on your boat. Proper maintenance and safety checks for your boat can help ensure safety on the water. 

Stay Safe When Launching and Docking

The boat launch area can be dangerous, especially when lots of people are trying to launch or dock at the same time. Respect other people’s time and safety by working quickly and efficiently to launch or dock. You should always maintain low speeds and make sure you are not causing a wake in the docking area.

If you are docking in harsh weather conditions, you must remain alert to where your boat is in relation to others. Pay close attention to how the wind and waves are moving your boat. Remain diligent and act quickly when it’s your turn to dock. Read more about proper docking protocol here.

How Aids to Navigation Can Help

Aids to navigation, or ATONs, are man-made objects that help vessels navigate and maintain a safe course. Aids include visible, audible, and electronic signals. Understanding what they mean can help you travel safely and avoid collisions, especially during poor weather conditions. Some examples of ATONs are:

  • Buoys
  • Lights
  • Lighthouses
  • Day beacons
  • Lightships
  • Radio beacons
  • Fog signals
  • Marks

Regulatory marks warn of restrictions or approaching dangers to vessels. They are white buoys with an orange shape. Each shape contains a different meaning. 

  • A square or rectangle conveys instructions
  • A circle means there is an upcoming restriction
  • An open diamond means danger
  • A diamond with a cross means you may not enter

Numbered aids can be extremely helpful for navigation. The rules of numbered aids are:

  • Odd-numbered aids are on the port side, or the left side of the waterway as you travel upstream. They are green. 
  • Even-numbered aids are on the starboard side, or the right side of the waterway as you travel upstream. They are red. 

When driving your boat, you and your designated lookout should be aware of visible or audible ATONs.

Why Boating Rules Matter

Boats are extremely fun, but they can also be dangerous. In 2019, there were 4,168 boating accidents, which resulted in 613 deaths. Many of these accidents and deaths occurred because basic safety rules were overlooked. By educating yourself on the rules of safe boating, you will keep your passengers and the passengers of other boats safe. When everyone plays by the rules, everyone can enjoy waterways. 

Looking to buy a new boat? Browse Germaine Marine’s inventory to find the perfect one. 
Check out our many new and used boats for sale here.