Water traffic is probably the most difficult to manage in terms of vehicle manoeuvrability and terrain control. Unlike roadways and, to an extent, airways, the medium of travel is not static but is continually changing depending upon a host of interlinked factors. These factors can range from local events like rip currents, whirlpools, and weather-related phenomena to global events like tides, ocean currents, and eddies. Naturally, traversing through the many waterways of the world on a single vessel is itself a deceptively tricky operation. The difficulty is raised, and the hazards multiplied, as multiple containers try to traverse through the entire waterway simultaneously. The concern then shifts from ‘What should you do not to get capsized at sea?’ to ‘What should you do to avoid colliding with another boat?

It is the protocol for most official sailors and boat skippers to have rigorous training on this matter and are generally very well-versed with the safety measures, precautions, and disaster management courses in case of any mishap on their travels. However, it is not always the case for recreational sailors, who are often not skilled at the art. In most cases, these people don’t even have formal training in driving a boat. At the same time, it’s not necessary to undergo such rigorous training to lead a ship. It has been shown by the many examples of amateurs conquering rivers seas and rapids in a heartbeat. However, it is always beneficial to have some idea of the safety protocols and know-how regarding how to traverse these treacherous water bodies, especially where several vessels are close together.

The primary hazards in some crowded waterways are the collision between the various vessels and the interference caused by the water due to a nearby water vehicle. While the latter also poses a significant problem in considering the bigger picture, it is a former problem which we are trying to address comprehensively in this discourse. Using the word ‘boat’ in association with the idea of a collision hazard seems to do it much injustice as boats are generally giving out the vibe of a modified but frail raft. So, the overall scenario demands the question be revised to ‘what should you do to avoid colliding with another vessel?‘, to get a more accurate perspective of the situation at hand.

Let’s start with the basic terminology related to sailing in vessels before answering the pertinent question.

Basic terminologies related to boats

Many traditional terminologies have been associated with boats and ships, an understanding of which is critical when it comes to an understanding aquatic traffic code. The most important parts of a vessel are described below:

  • Bow:  The bow refers to the front part of a boat. In the case of a symmetrical boat, it relates to a part of the boat which is pointed in the direction of the boat’s movement.
  • Stern: The stern refers to the back part of the boat, i.e. opposite to the bow of the ship. Again, in the case of a symmetrical boat, it relates to a part of the boat pointed opposite to the direction of the boat’s movement.
  • Starboard: The starboard refers to the right side of the boat. It is a traditional term that has evolved through the years as part of a sailor’s vocabulary.
  • Port: The port refers to the left side of the boat. It is also a traditional term in the sailor’s handbook as most boats entered a port on its left side. Therefore, in most vessels, the port side refers to the left side and not the side nearest to a port.
  • Vessel: As mentioned in previous sections of this article, the word ‘vessel’ is synonymous with all the different types of boats as a collective.
  • Masterlight: It is one of the essential navigational components of a boat. Every boat needs a high power and far-reaching light to see far across the seas.

These are most of the basic sailor lingo you need to know to get a proper grasp of the traffic rules at play in the aquatic realm. The relevant traffic rules about the problem as presented in the title ‘What should you do to avoid colliding with another boat?

Relevant queries related to the problem

There are a few standard rules which are set in stone in the case of vehicular traffic in water. Like most vehicular accidents on land, they can be easily avoided by adhering to these basic rules and regulations. These rules are described briefly in bulleted points below.

  • When there is heavy traffic in a waterway, and two boats are likely to come to a head or pass by each other, a specific set of rules is enforced for the safety of the vessels and the personnel aboard them.
  • One of the boats has to be ‘stand-on vessel’, which chooses their course. The other ship would be designated the ‘give-way vessel’ which would agree not to interfere with the boat’s manoeuvres. This potential agreement is a critical factor in reducing the risk of ships colliding and capsizing in the open sea.
  • Boats attached with motors have more excellent manoeuvrability and thus should be the give-way vessel whenever in the vicinity of the wind-powered ship.
  • A powered vehicle should always stay away from the course of any sailing boats or commercial vessels engaged in the fishing industry.
  • Vessels of any shape, size, or any level of manoeuvrability, should try their level best to move away from the course of any emergency vehicle or government-sponsored patrol boats.

Keys to communicating with nearby vessels

The standard set of traffic rules is well-devised and easy to understand. However, the most important factor that concerns them is to find an effective way to implement them. In this regards, proper means of communication is paramount to ensure safety and prosperity in the deep blue seas. A few conventional communicative signals are described in the section below.

In normal conditions

  • When one vessel approaches another vessel head-on, they should signal appropriately whether they want to move to the starboard side or the port side, or if they want to move backwards.
  • The conventional signals are one short horn for moving towards starboard, two sharp horns to move towards the port, and three short horns to move backwards.
  • The skipper should also wait for the other ship to signal back before making a move, as it signifies that the other captain also acknowledges their presence.
  • While trying to overtake another boat, the overtaking boat should signal whether they move to the starboard side or port side, by two long horns followed by a short horn, and two long horns followed by two sharp horns respectively.
  • Again the skipper should also wait for the other ship to signal back appropriately before making their move.

In foggy conditions

  • Motorized vessels need to sound out one long horn every two minutes while it is static in water, and two long horns while it is moving in the water. They should also sound the longhorn once while approaching sharp bends and turns in the course.
  • If due to the low visibility, the vessel gets caught in netting or other obstacles, they should sound one long horn, followed by two short horns at two-minute intervals to signal for help.
  • If a vessel is anchored during foggy conditions and they see another boat approaching them, they should sound a bell followed by successive blasts of a gong, or a longhorn followed by a raft of short horns as a warning signal.
  • In many cases, the fog on the sea may be too thick, and then multiple sound signals and searchlight can be used together as a signal apparatus.

Panic stations!

Sometimes even the most careful of seafarers can get into dicey situations even after following the set rules to a T. So in such a case, ‘what should you do to avoid colliding with another boat?’ The obvious answer lies in trying to control your speed and even reversing to get out of the area. However, there are also a few other tricks of the trade.

  • When two boats are coming head-to-head, both should signal and turn towards starboard or the port (i.e. in opposite directions), passing each other without contact.
  • If your boat approaches a boat on its port side, they are the stand-on vehicle, and you should turn starboard.
  • If your boat approaches a boat on its starboard side, you are the stand-on vessel, and you should wait for the other ship to turn starboard.
  • Radar and sonar instruments should be used to detect boats from a distance.
  • In case, one is unsure of the movements of another boat; they can send the danger signal by five small horn blasts.

Related Frequently Asked Questions

Who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats?

While the personnel aboard both the vessels should be held accountable in case of a collision happening, a higher responsibility life with the give-way vessel in ensuring they give out the proper signal and conduct the precise movements.

What should you do if a boat motor catches fire?

As is the case with most fires, the first step to cutting off a motorboat fire is to cut off the fuel supply. This action should be followed by using the fire extinguisher to retard the flames and calling emergency services.


To prevent collisions between boats, the following points must be kept at mind.

  • Be well versed with terminologies related to vessels.
  • Follow the safety rules strictly while in the wide-open sea.
  • Learn and implement the proper sound signals
  • Practice and master the critical manoeuvres during critical times
  • Keep a fire extinguisher at hand.
  • Always be alert while at sea.


Leave a Reply

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