The Hull Truth About Avoiding a Collision on the Water

Who is responsible for avoiding collision between two boats? 

While the water doesn’t have a clear-cut right-of-way, there are definite rules all boaters must follow. The answer to who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats is that both captains share this duty. It doesn’t matter if you’re boating inland or international waters. It also applies to rivers and the Great Lakes. The law is clear.

Boating Accidents and Fatalities

The US Coast Guard reported nearly 4,300 boating accidents in 2017. Operator inattention was the primary contributing factor, followed by improper lookout, inexperience, mechanical failure, and alcohol use. Almost 30 percent involved a collision with another vessel. The sobering factor about these statistics is that boater education could help reduce these figures and save lives.

Over 80 percent of these accidents happened in cases where the captain had no instruction. The reality is that only seven states have mandatory education requirements for all operators, according to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. Boaters have the opportunity to learn about regulations on the water, such as the navigation rules and responsibility for collision avoidance.

Many states require education for younger individuals and those operating personal watercraft. However, 30 percent of these incidences occurred on crafts where the captain was over 55. Other factors also come into play when discussing who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats.

Personal Floatation Device and the Law

Usage of personal floatation devices or PFDs is mandatory in all 50 states. However, only one, Louisiana, requires them pass 16 years of age. It’s a critical point, given the fact that over half of the boat collisions involved one or more persons ejected or otherwise forced into the water. More than 80 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a PFD.

Rules of the Water

Operating a boat safely requires some knowledge of the terminology and so-called rules of the road. The basic regs apply across the board, no matter what body of water you’re boating. Others are site-specific. An excellent place to start is with the parts of the boat.


Knowing these terms is essential since many rules depend on knowing what they mean. They are as follows:

Bow: front of the boat

Stern: back of the boat

Port: left side of the boat

Starboard: right side of the boat

The body of the boat is called the hull and the upper rim, the gunwale. Boating laws cover specific parts. For example, passengers cannot sit on the gunwale while the vessel is underway because of the risk of falling into the water. Others concern navigation.

Navigation Rules

The navigation rules spell out how boats should pass to avoid a collision and keep you from having to check out new boat prices. When two vessels meet, one is the give-way and the other, the stand-on. The former yields the right-of-way to the other. The regs cover meeting head-on, crossing, and overtaking. You can think of them as the laws of the water.

Meeting Head-On

In this case, neither boat has the right-of-way per se. Each captain should maneuver their craft so that both are passing on the port side. You should also slow down and stay alert for any hazards such as the other vessel towing a tube.


The boat that has the other in its sight on the starboard is the give-way vessel. The operator is responsible for staying out of the way or changing course to interfere with the other. You can tell if another craft is in front of you at night if you see a red light. It is always on the port side, whereas the starboard has a green one. You’ll see a white one in the stern or back.


Unless you have an oversized rearview mirror, you may find it hard to see boats trying to pass you. That makes you the stand-on vessel. The one behind you is the give-way and must not get in your way. Instead, you should maintain your present course. The other one should signal his intentions with a short blast of the craft’s horn. Two mean that he’s passing on the port side and one for starboard side.


Who goes first depends on the type of boat and its maneuverability. The less control that a vessel has, the higher it ranks on the hierarchy. The pecking order goes from top to bottom in the following order:

Vessel being overtaken by another

Unmanned boat

Craft with limited control due to nets or other gear

Vessels impacted by the wind

Fishing boats actively engaged


Powered boats

That brings up another vital aspect of avoiding collisions. A powered boat can take swifter action than one that is hampered in some way. That doesn’t mean that her captain isn’t responsible. It is, after all, the duty of all boaters.

The exceptions to this list apply to fishing boats that are trolling. In this case, they are powered vessels. Also, many sailboats have used outboard motors to navigate to their mooring sites. They fall into this class too.

The Logic of the Laws

As you can see, the rules make sense, especially for boaters who have taken a safety course. Regulations target both prevention as with navigation and precaution as with PFDs if an accent happens. It is the responsibility of the operator to know what regs apply wherever they boat.

The lack of lanes makes boating safely more complicated. That’s why all operators need a common ground with the roles of the give-way and stand-on vessels. They must have a way to communicate with horn blasts that mean certain things. These factors put the onus on all captains to avoid collisions and having to use a boat payment calculator in the worst case scenario.

Safety First on the Water

The captain of a boat is responsible for the safety of all the passengers and the vessel. They must remain alert to avoid hazards. And they also have to be respectful of others on the water. That means staying clear of any anchored crafts, especially if there are people in the water swimming around it. It involves driving at the speed limit where applicable.

Many collisions are avoidable, considering the open space of the water. The best way to prevent them is to stay alert at all times. Only boat as fast as you maneuver safely with ample time to react to changing conditions. And always keep an eye out for the other guy. The essential rule of the water is that boaters always take care of other boaters.