Who is Responsible for Avoiding a Collision Between Two Boats?

who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats

Picture this, two boats moving slowly and cautiously but their paths happen to intersect and are both on a collision course with each other. Now who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats?

This is one of the more common scenarios being asked on Boat Ed or various types of Quizlet regarding boating. No one wants such a scenario happening in reality after all, but as this is a potential problem that every boater faces, appropriate measures should be taken by the ones responsible for such a situation in the first place.

This happens because unlike cars on a road where there are road signs, right of way, and lane markings, boats on the water have none of these which can make certain maneuvers a bit more difficult since you can’t exactly predict when and where the boat in front of you is heading.

That said, potential collision courses are for the most part common occurrences but are easily avoidable provided that those responsible are aware of their duties and responsibilities regarding such situations. With all that said it’s time to identify these people and the direct answer to this question.

Short Answer

Both captains or boat operators of both boats share this duty. That’s as simple as it gets.

Any and every person operating a boat should be aware of their duties and responsibilities to avoid any collision and environmental hazards.


An in-depth explanation of why this is so is that each operator requires some knowledge on the so-called “right of way” specific to bodies of water. Local laws and regulations also have some weight to this and the assumption is that if you have a boating license then you are presumably aware of all these terminologies regarding boating and especially potential collisions.

  • Bow - Front of the boat
  • Stern - Rear of the boat
  • Port - Left side of the boat
  • Starboard - Right side of the boat

These are some of the things to note especially on Boat Ed, and will be used constantly throughout the further discussion of maneuvers and navigational rules.

Common Navigational Rules

Here are a few navigational rules on common scenarios all boaters encounter.


As the name says, you encounter a boat right in front of you heading in your direction. In this situation, neither boat has the right of way and thus should position the boat such that they each pass the other boat on the port side. If both captains/operators follow this rule any head-on collision and accidents can be easily avoided.


If your boat is facing the starboard side of another moving vessel, then you should give way and wait for that boat to pass first. If you are facing the port side of the other boat then that boat will give way for you to pass first.


If your boat is the one going to overtake then you should signal the other vessel with a short blast of your vessel’s horn. One blast for passing on the starboard side and two blasts when passing on the port side.

If your boat is the one being overtaken, then just maintain your speed and your course and let the other boat adjust to yours.

Right of Way

Who goes first usually depends on the previously mentioned scenarios but can also depend on the type of vessel and it’s maneuverability. The lesser the control exerted by a vessel the higher is its priority in terms of right of way. In a nutshell, stay out of the way of really large ships.

Special Vessels

These include vessels that are not operating in a conventional manner as they are executing a certain maneuver or doing a unique operation that may be unpredictable and as such extra care should be exercised when approaching such vessels.

These include:

  • Unmanned boats either anchored or not, common examples would be docked or parked boats that you have to maneuver through.
  • Burdened crafts are the types of vessels that can become unpredictable as they are burdened by certain equipment. Examples of these would be trolling boats pulling fishing nets or boats towing watersports gear such as wakeboarding or water skiing.
  • Sailboats move through the water using wind and thus may not move at a constant speed, therefore you should exercise caution especially when overtaking such vessels as they may suddenly slow down or speed up.
  • Fishing boats can operate either by using fishing rods and lines and will be anchored to prevent any motion, but fishing boats can also move at a significant speed especially when trying to catch larger types of fish. Be wary of these lines and nets when navigating around them.


In summary both operators are held responsible for avoiding collisions as both licensed operators should be well aware of their duties and responsibilities the moment they chose to hold the wheel.

If you’re preparing for a Boat Ed and encountered this Quizlet, then now you have an idea on who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats.

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