When you are out on the water, whether it is your first time or you are a seasoned skipper, there is always the chance of a collision. It could happen while pulling away from the boat ramp as well as out on the open water. Many experienced sailors know what to do in these types of close encounters, but some new enthusiasts can become startled and flustered. It all boils down to how well you know your “Ways of the Water” and how well you can communicate with the other vessel. This can be troublesome if they don’t know how to signal back or what your signal means. So, what should you do to avoid colliding with another boat?

In this article, we’ll give you a brief description of common boating terms and signals used while at sea, along with some tips for avoiding those close encounters. For specific details, check out the US Coast Guard’s Navigational Rules or the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, better known as COLREGs. You should also research your local waterway to find out if anyone has specific tips on the question of “what should you do to avoid colliding with another boat.”

What Should You Do to Avoid Colliding With Another Boat?

boat sailing in the sea

Before getting into the specific details of how to handle an encounter on the water with another boat, we should cover some nautical terms that you’ll come across while talking to seasoned skippers, along with reading the Navigational Rules or the COLREGs.

The Basics Of Boating

The major parts of the boat include the bow, stern, starboard, and port. The bow is the front (this is easy to remember because you lean forward to bow), and the stern is the back of the boat. Starboard and port are the right and left sides of the boat, respectively.

A boat is better known as a “vessel.” This is due to the fact that there are so many types of boats and many are too big or too small to be considered boats. The Navigational Rules declares a vessel as anything that has the potential to be used as transportation on the water.

The “masterlight” is the main light on most boats, which has a 225-degree visibility arc and can be seen from up to 5 miles away (on larger vessels).

Ways Of The Water

When studying the ways of the water, you are likely to come across terms you’ve never seen before. A “stand on” vessel is one that chooses its course and the “give way” vessel should stay clear of the stand on the boat’s maneuvers. What should you do to avoid colliding with another boat? The first step is knowing how has right of way.

First off, all vessels must give way to any emergency or government vessels, along with any vessels not under control or which have limited maneuverability. A power-driven (motorized) vessel must keep out of the way of sailing vessels and commercial vessels engaged in fishing. If a sailing vessel has an outward motor attached, who goes first is determined by if that boat is traveling by wind power alone.

If they are using the motor at the moment of the encounter, they should be treated as a motorized vessel. When powered by wind, sailboats are the stand on vessel when encountering a motorized boat.

What Should You Do To Avoid Colliding With Another Boat?: Using Sound And Light To Communicate

two fishing boats in a lake

Both light and sound signals use the same patterns of short and long bursts to communicate with other boats out on the water, whether blasts of the horn or flashes of the masterlight. Blasts of the horn or flashes of the masterlight can be either short or long. Short bursts can be about two or three seconds long, whereas the long bursts can last from four to six seconds. Determining which one to use depends on the time of day and/or current weather conditions.

How To Communicate With Signals

There are a variety of sound signals for various encounters. For example, you would not use the same signal for passing up a boat on the starboard side as you would if you were approaching a boat head-on and signaling that you intend to move to your starboard side.

When approaching another vessel head-on, use one short blast of the horn to signal that you intend to change your course to your starboard side. If you choose to turn to your port side instead, use two short blasts of the horn. When about to use astern propulsion (move in reverse), signal using three short blasts of the horn. Whichever sound signal you use in this encounter, the other boat should signal back with the same signal. It is only when you are overtaking another bot that they will use a different signal to signal that they agree with your maneuver.

When you are trying to pass up another boat, you would use two long bursts of the horn followed by one short blast to signal that you want to move to their starboard (right) side of the boat. If you decide you want to move to their port (left) side, you would use two long blasts and two short blasts to signal to the boat ahead of you. If they agree, they will signal back with four blasts of the horn: one long, one short, one long, and one short blast.

Sound Signals During Low Visibility For Power-Driven Vessels

During times of fog, there are a few extra signals to keep in mind. While underway in the water, motorized vessels should sound off with one prolonged blast of their horn every two minutes. When stopped in the fog, the skipper should sound off using two prolonged blasts of the horn (with two seconds between blasts) every two minutes.

If a vessel is constrained by her nets, tow, or her draught at a time of restricted visibility, she should sound off with one prolonged blast followed by two short blasts of her horn at no more than two-minute intervals. Motorized vessels should also sound off using one prolonged horn blast when approaching a bend.

If a vessel is at anchor during times of low visibility and another vessel approaches, she should sound a bell in the forepart of the ship at a minimum of once a minute and then immediately sound a gong for five seconds. Another option, especially for a shorter vessel, is simply to sound off with the horn using one short, one long, and another short blast of the horn to signal the approaching vessel.

Sometimes it may be necessary to get another vessel’s attention. This can be achieved by using a sound pattern that cannot be recognized as any already-established signal. You may also use a searchlight to attract attention. Precautions should be taken to not startle the driver of that vessel or any others on the water.

What Should You Do To Avoid Colliding With Another Boat?: Preventing A Collision

ships in the water near near concrete bridge

The key to preventing a collision, even if it seems imminent, is controlling your speed. Even when close together, boats can avoid accidents by knowing how much distance they need to slow down to a stop. Of course, when a collision is imminent and you have space behind you, there’s always astern propulsion (going in reverse); but don’t forget to signal!

How To Avoid A Collision On The Water

If you happen to approach another boat head-on, you both should turn (and signal) to your starboard side so you pass each other port-to-port (it may be easier to remember red-to-red). However, sometimes that isn’t an option. In that case, you can go starboard-to-starboard instead by both boats turning to their port sides.

If you approach a boat on its port side, they are the stand-on vessel. You should turn to starboard and stay out of their way. On the other hand, if you approach from the right side, you are the stand on vessel. This means you direct the movement of both boats by keeping your course while the other boat turns starboard until you pass by.

Long-range scanning, using radar, should be taken into account when keeping a lookout for approaching vessels. When in doubt and you don’t see the approaching vessel change course from a distance, signal, then make your move. Even if you signal, any changes in your course should clearly visible to the other vessel.

If you are ever in doubt about another vessel’s maneuver, you can send a “danger!” signal by using five short blasts of the horn (or flashes of light) or use your VHF radio to communicate more effectively with the other boat. Disaster can usually be avoided by appointing a designated lookout, keeping a safe speed and distance from other boats, and by staying in the right channels. Be sure to study up on your boating knowledge occasionally. Regulations for United States waters can be found in the Coast Guard’s Navigational Rules, or more detailed instructions can be found in the international COLREGs.