How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat?

Over the past few years, the fishing boat industry has grown tremendously. It is one of the most popular, fun and healthy outdoor activity. With more and more people taking up boating as their hobby each year, there are a lot more boats on the waterways now. Statistics show that there are 13 Million registered recreational boats in the US alone.

Boat statistics

With such an increased number of boats on our seas, lakes, and rivers, there is an ever-increasing threat of accidents. According to national statistics, around 700 people die every year in boating accidents.

So if you are someone who owns a boat and loves boating, there are some navigational rules that you must know for your safety on the water. As a boat captain, it is your responsibility to know the basic mistakes that can happen on the water and how to avoid them. You should have enough knowledge of the navigational rules to handle any emergency situation.

Navigation Rules FAQ

Why is it Important to Know the Navigational/Overtaking rules?

steering wheel of a boat

Imagine yourself on a road where there is a lot of traffic. You certainly can’t pass that traffic and move forward if you don’t know the traffic rules well enough. Lack of knowledge will cause damage to your vehicle as well as other vehicles on the road.

Just like that, if there are no hard and fast rules on waterways, and everyone just made up their own rules on how to pass other boats. There would definitely be a lot more casualties and accidents on the waterways.

In order to avoid such accidents, there are some rules directed by the Federal laws that you must follow when passing other boats and pay particular attention to your safety as well as of other people on the boat.

Passing a Fishing Boat: the Right Way

The first step to knowing how to pass a fishing boat is to know when you can cross it. This is decided based upon a certain hierarchy which depends on the pilot’s extent of control over his boat. Starting from the highest priority, here is the order of the boats we should keep in mind while crossing in waters:

  • Boats being crossed by other boats 
  • Unmanned vessels 
  • Boats with gear such as nets and lines that restricted maneuverability in the water
  • Boats with navigation limited by drafts 
  • Fishing boats (an exception to the rule: if it is trolling)
  • Sailboats

Now that you’re familiar with the order of preference, let’s get familiar with some basic terms so that we can understand the navigation rules a lot better 

Basic Definitions

  • Bow: The top of the vessel 
  • Stern: The backside of the boat 
  • Hull: The body of the vessel
  • Port: The left side of the boat 
  • Starboard: The right side of the boat 
  • Give-way vessel: The vessel that keeps out of the way of an approaching vessel in order to avoid an accident.
  • Stand-on vessel: The vessel that maintains its course and speed because it has the right of way. It actively overtakes the other vessel while informing the vessel being overtaken of its actions to avoid a collision.

The boats that are used for fishing are called fishing boats. Usually, they are connected with a net and line. There are specific lines on the waterways for the fishing boats, they can’t cross that line and are obliged to stay there. You are also not allowed to cross that line unless you have communicated with the fishing boat captain using signals.

When passing a fishing boat, there are a lot of rules on how to pass it depending on its position and other circumstances.

According to US coast guards’ navigation rules on passing fishing boats, the vessels should steer to the right-hand side. This way, both boats will then pass each other on their port (left hand) side. When passing a fishing boat, do so with minimum wake, avoiding any fishing lines.

However, you can only pass a fishing boat after signaling the captain and receiving an acknowledgment to pass. There can be two ways to signal the captain of the fishing boat. If you are on the right side of the fishing boat, you have to use one blast to pass. And, if you are on the left side, you have to use two blasts to pass.

While passing, you should always maintain full concentration, having a proper lookout to avoid any unexpected hurdles that could appear during the pass. You can also ask other passengers on your boat to look out for any oncoming boats, swimmers or water bodies so that they can alert you timely.

However, avoiding a collision is a priority in all cases. So as a boat captain you must use your common sense to avoid any collision and danger to your passengers. If that is possible only by passing the boat on a different side, then you should do that.

In other words, you don’t have to stick to the law, if it puts you or others on the water in danger.

What if You Are on The Fishing Boat?

If you are in a fishing boat, then in this situation you are in the leading position. You are allowed to keep your side of the waterway. You can’t speed up or slow down the boat during the pass. You have to maintain a steady speed and let the other boat pass you safely.

Maintaining a safe speed is very important, so always observe the speed limit. As over speeding will not allow you to react in case of any unexpected situation that can happen on the waterways.

For example:

  • A wrong signal from an oncoming boat
  • A sudden large wake from a passing boat
  • Hazards and obstacles
  • Broken boats on the waterways
  • Large water bodies
  • The boat’s draft in relation to the water depth
  • Weather conditions (such as heavy rain, fog)
  • Water conditions (sudden massive waves)
  • A swimmer or a person towed on a wakeboard

As a boat captain, your first and foremost responsibility is to avoid accidents. If you ever forget the navigation rules for passing another boat, you can always communicate with the other captain using the radio. You can discuss the passing rules with them and come up with a passing maneuver that works for both of you.

Who Has Right of Way: Sailboat or Fishing boat?

sail boat

Whenever two boats try to pass each other on the water, a right of way situation exists. In such situations, one boat is obligated to give way to the other boat. The boat that is supposed to give way is called the “give-way vessel” and the other one is called the “stand on the vessel”.

When the two passing boats are a sailboat and a fishing boat, a fishing boat always has the right of way over the sailboat. This means that the fishing boat is allowed to keep its waterway as its maneuverability is restricted by fishing equipment.

What to do When You Meet a Fishing Boat Head-on?

The first rule when two boats meet head-on is that one should indicate its intent, and the other should respond to it promptly. In such a situation, neither boat acts as a stand-on vessel. Instead while taking proper precautions, they should both pass on the port side, while maintaining adequate distance. As both boats are crossing simultaneously, they should slow down while crossing each other, especially in case of a significant size difference. This is a common courtesy to avoid throwing a large wake on the smaller vessel.

How to Cross a Fishing Boat at Night

fishing boat at night

Navigating your boat in the dark isn’t the most ideal situation, however, if you stick to a few basic rules you can safely make it back home. First and foremost you should maintain a slower pace because there could always be logs or debris ahead of you that could damage your vessel. Furthermore, it is easy to confuse lights being reflected by the waters, which is why generally waters that have speed limits tend to have lower limits at night. It is also better to bring along an extra pair of eyes if you’re planning on staying in the waters after sunset.  

While crossing another boat at night, it is important to have the lights of boats on your fingertips. The light on the front left is red, and the one on the right, i.e. the starboard is green. Furthermore, the backlight which is elevated is white. With this knowledge in mind, it is easy to understand the direction of the other vessel and cross it accordingly. 

How to Pass a Fishing Boat in Tight Quarters

When passing through tight quarters, there is a higher chance of collision, which means you have to be extra careful in these hotspots. Just as you do on the road, you should steer towards the right-hand side if you meet a fishing boat. If however, both vessels cannot cross each other simultaneously due to tight width, then the larger vessel is allowed to pass first. Since narrow channels can be tricky, you should have a firm grip on steering your boat.


How to Pass a Sailboat

Sailboats generally get the right-of-way over all powered vessels because their maneuverability is restricted. However, there are certain exceptions to this case. This rule does not apply if it is a powered sailboat with an engine. Secondly, if two vessels meet head-on in a narrow channel, the larger vessel gets the right-of-way. Furthermore, if a sailboat is overtaking a powerboat, then the powerboat has the right-of-way. 

A fishing boat that is anchored has the right-of-way. Make sure to keep an adequate distance away from them. The line from their vessel may extend far from it. The last thing either of you wants is a line wrapped around your boat’s prop.

Why is it Tricky/ Complicated to Pass a Fishing Boat?

Fishing boats are a bit trickier to pass because there’s a higher risk of accidents. This is because they often have lines in the water that stretch beyond the vessel’s body which is why if you’re not maintaining adequate distance while crossing, you could get caught up in their lines and risk a collision. It is a good idea to put your boat in neutral if you are crossing over another boat’s fishing lines so that they don’t get caught up in your propellors. Fishing boats themselves can also avoid any accidents by putting their boat in neutral so that their lines sink deeper into the waters. 

That’s why it is very important to keep a few tips in mind to ensure your safety.

Reduce Your Speed

It is always a safer option to maintain a safe speed, which helps maneuverability, and also makes it easier to avoid any obstructions such as fishing ropes and logs, etc. You have more time to make decisions which is why you do not panic. Also, it is very important especially when you are crossing another vessel because you might underestimate its breadth and could bump against it. You can also avoid huge water splashes on smaller fishing vessels which is common courtesy. In fact, some waters also have speed limits so in that case, you should strictly adhere to them.

Keep A Lookout

No matter how confident you are about your navigation and maneuverability, the most important rule to avoid any collisions is to always keep a lookout. Because your radio and radar may not be enough. This is especially important when you are passing a fishing boat since there are many obstacles you need to keep an eye out for such as fishing lines. Vigilance is important otherwise as well, which is why it is always a better idea to have an extra pair of eyes on board.

Final Words

If you are a boat captain or own a kayak, no matter how experienced you are, you should have knowledge of basic navigational rules. Just like the road traffic rules, US coast guard also keeps updating the water legislation and water tracks. You should keep yourself updated with the relevant information to avoid any unexpected accidents.

If you are not aware of the US coast guard rules, you will be putting yourself and others on your boat on serious risks of accidents.

If you still have any confusion or question regarding boating safety and passing rules, contact the U.S. coast guard, or reference the navigational rules. The US coast guard publishes the navigational rules which can be purchased or read online at

Frequently Asked Questions

Which side do you pass an oncoming boat?

Each boat should alter course to the starboard side (right side) and pass port to port (left side).

When another boat is approaching from your right?

A boat approaching from your right (starboard) side has always right of way. And if you are approaching another board from its right side, you have the right of way.

Michael Holding

Michael is an outdoor adventurer and a kayaking enthusiast who loves to share his experiences with others. He is the Chief Editor at XgearHub.

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