There are distinct rules that exist when you are plying on waterways on your boat. Traffic rules exist for road traffic not only to ensure that rampant accidents do not occur but also to prevent traffic jams and inconveniences. It is the same for boats.

The number of boats going out in the water has increased greatly over the years and it has become even more important to ensure that definite rules are enforced to avoid unwanted situations.

Crossing a Fishing Boat

The default rule to follow when crossing a fishing vessel is that both vessels should steer towards their right side. In nautical terms, this means that the boats must turn starboard. That way, the vessels would each pass with the other on the port side, meaning the left side.

Overtaking a Fishing Boat

When you are overtaking the fishing boat, you can, by default, steer starboard to pass it. However, this is more of a convention than a rule as it was for crossing a fishing boat. In most cases, the two drivers communicate and decide what to do. But whether you are overtaking a boat or meeting it head-on, signaling is essential.

overtaking a fishing boat


Signaling is extremely important for vessels passing because of various reasons. For one, even though the rules of water traffic are all mandated by US Coast Guard federal laws, they are quite flexible. After all, there are no set roads in the water like on land.

Plus, boats can take up greater space than a single vessel requires due to various reasons like fishing and towing. Moreover, a boat driver may also not be aware of the passing rules as they are not hard-and-fast ones.

When passing a boat, follow this signaling rule: if you are manning the vessel that is actively looking to cross, blast your horn once to signal to the captain of the other vessel that you want to cross by the starboard side. If you want to cross by the port side, blast the horn twice.

In either case, you will have to wait for the other captain to respond with the same number of honks to confirm the action. Only then can you initiate the crossing.

However, keep in mind that if you are not sure if there is a total understanding between you and the other captain regarding what you mean to do, it is better to communicate in some other way, like the radio or another channel, just to be on the safe side. 

Hierarchy of Navigation

One must remember that fishing boats have low maneuverability. This means in most cases, they get maneuverability. The general pecking order when it comes to who gets the right of way, ie, the right to maintain their waterway, from high to low priority, are:

  • Vessels being overtaken by others 
  • Unmanned boats
  • Boats of which the maneuverability is being limited by nets, lines or any other gear in the water
  • Vessels with restricted navigation due to drafts 
  • Actively engaged fishing vessels except in the case of trolling
  • Sailboats
  • Powered boats

This means that when maintaining the default, a vessel higher up on the list will be the stand-on vessel, which will keep its speed and course steady while passing. A boat lower down will be the give-way vessel, which will make way for the stand-on boat by moving out of its path. Keep in mind that sailing boats using an engine will follow in the category of powered boats too.

Exceptions to the Rule

The above rule was made to ensure that every vessel follows a common guideline for their own safety. But if following the rule jeopardizes that very safety, then it makes sense to break it and do what your common sense tells you.

One common case is when a fishing boat has nets or lines or any other gear on its port side. Then, if you try to pass along that side, your boat may get tangled with the lines. This could cause an accident in both your boat and the fishing vessel. 

Then, if the starboard side is clear, then, after establishing your intent and the blessing of the fishing boat captain, you can pass by steering to the port side and passing by the starboard side.

The same applies when, say, the fishing boat is moving to dock on the port side. Of course, when you are manning a fishing boat, you will be the one with the right of way. In case both of the vessels are fishing boats, use the above hierarchy to decide who gets right of way or use your discretion with clear communication.

What to Keep in Mind when Passing a Fishing Boat

In spite of following all the rules, accidents can still occur if you are too rash on the water, just as it is on the roads. That is why one should maintain certain etiquettes when passing a fishing boat.

  • Lower the speed of your boat. This will help the situation in two ways. First, a low speed allows greater control over the boat. It becomes easier to avoid any obstacles as you maneuver the boat along the waterway. Second, it allows you to have a better reflex when responding to any sudden unexpected incident. You will have time to make a countermove to avoid the situation. Moreover, you yourself will be able to control your boat better and not cause an accident due to rashness. The fishing boat should also do the same, especially since this will lower any engaged nets or lines and keep them out of the way of the oncoming vessel
  • Appoint a lookout. This is one of the reasons why you should always take a buddy with you out in the water if possible. It is not possible to keep track of every obstruction along the path of the boat as well as the fishing vessel that you are passing while concentrating on keeping a smooth track. This is true especially if your vessel is large. That is why it is best to let someone act as a lookout to maintain full control of your boat.
  • Maintain communication. Always make sure you and the captain of the fishing boat are on the same page when passing the fishing vessel. If you are not and both of you are acting on different notions, a serious accident might be caused.
  • Keep wakes to a minimum. Large wakes are dangerous, especially for a small fishing boat. The impact could throw someone overboard, it could throw water over the boat or even cause fishing lines or nets to get tangled. 
  • Maintain a wide berth. Try to keep as much distance from each other as possible. Give the fishing vessel as much space as it needs to prevent tangling with their nets or lines. Also, this distance keeps a safe buffering space in case the boats get pushed towards each other due to any reason.
  • Hold onto the boat. Passing a fishing boat can be a complex maneuver. It is better for people on both vessels to hold on tight to something and not come too close to the edge of the deck.

How to Pass a Fishing Boat in Tight Quarters

It is important to be extra careful when you are passing a fishing boat in tight quarters. Here too, the same rule applies. However, in this case, the speeds of both the boats must be lowered even more for greater control to avoid a collision. In case the space is too tight and crossing at the same time is too risky, the larger vessel gets the right of way and passes first.

How to Pass a Fishing Boat At Night

Passing a fishing boat in the dark is even more dangerous. That is why there is a lower speed limit on waterways at night than during the day. When you are passing a fishing vessel at night, maintain a very low speed and use the lights of your vessel according to how you plan to navigate.

passing a boat at night

The port side is marked by the red light and the starboard side by the green light, both in the front. There is also a white light at the back or the stern of the boat, and it is elevated. Use your own lights correctly and read the visual signals of the fishing boat you are passing too. 

Concluding remark

If you are going to be out on a boat, you must be as responsible as when you are driving a car. This means you must follow the above directions religiously. Learn the requisite US Coast Guard laws by heart and stay updated about any changes that may be made. The safety of both parties should always be your primary concern and the main motive behind every action.


One boat is overtaking another. Which boat should stand on?

The boat being overtaken is the stand-on vessel, as it maintains its speed and course while the overtaking boat maneuvers itself around it.

What side do you pass an oncoming boat on?

By default, you should pass to the port side of an oncoming boat by steering right.

When a sailboat overtakes a powerboat, which vessel is the stand-on vessel?

When a sailboat overtakes a powerboat, the powerboat is the stand-on and maintains right of way

In the navigation rules, what must give-way boats do?

Give-way boats must steer themselves out of the course of the stand-on and make way for it or let it maintain its path, as the case may be. 

Why should boaters slow down when passing recreational fishing boats?

Boaters should slow down while passing fishing boats to produce as little wake as possible as this can douse or destabilize the fishing boat. This is especially important if your vessel is significantly larger than the fishing vessel.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *