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March 22, 2022

Who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats?

Many people are eager to get out on the water. Boating is a great way to spend time with friends and family, but new boaters should always be aware of the rules of boat piloting. Many people see operating a boat the same as driving a car, but waterways can be deceptive, and there is often less room to operate than it may seem. Any time two power-driven vessels are in close proximity, things can get dangerous and collisions can occur.

The aquatic rules of the road can help individuals know who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats. Florida law requires a boat operator to act in a reasonable and prudent manner to prevent boating accidents. This includes common-sense measures such as maintaining a safe speed, following navigation rules, maintaining a safe distance, and taking other prudent steps to avoid a collision.

However, there are more specific navigational rules regarding the stand-on vessel, give way vessel, draft fishing vessels, and other vessels that boat operators should know and understand. As the vessel operator, it is your responsibility to ensure that you understand and comply with the law.

A good boat accident lawyer can help you to ensure that your rights are protected and hold other boaters accountable in the event of an accident or collision. This can be especially important in areas with a vibrant boating community, like our very own Tampa Bay Area. Collisions happen out on the water, and even when primary responsibility seems clear, there may be complex legal factors involved. John C. Murrow is a Tampa Bay boating accident lawyer with the knowledge and experience to ensure your rights are protected and you get the compensation you deserve.

Understanding Boating Rules on the Water

Boating laws are often more difficult to negotiate than automobile etiquette where there are obvious signs and clear lines on the road. The rules of the water are often based on situations that are open to interpretation and depend on a given physical situation between various types of watercraft. As a result, boater operators need to be very aware of their boat's capabilities and how to behave in any given scenario to avoid danger.

Who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats

The Give-Way Vessel

In any given traffic situation involving two vessels, the give-way vessel is the boat that is obligated to yield to the other vessel. This term applies to a variety of situations but is essentially a catch-all term to refer to the boat that is supposed to "get out of the way". A competent boat accident attorney will always want to establish these terms with utmost certainty any time a maritime claim is brought to court.

The Stand-On Vessel

In the opposite role of the give-way vessel is the stand-on vessel. Any decent boating accident lawyer will tell a potential client that this can be a deceptive term. Being the stand-on boat does not mean that the operator can do whatever they want and the give-way boat has to accommodate his or her maneuvers.

Rather, the stand-on boat is responsible for maintaining course and speed so that the give-way boat can plan in managing the situation. The pilot of the stand-on boat has to make predictable, steady choices so that the helmsman of the give-way boat can plan accordingly. Avoiding a collision between two boats comes down to each vessel operator carrying out his or her responsibilities.

Operator Responsibilities

The heart of operating a boat responsibly is vigilance. Boat owners should always maintain a watch. The water can be deceiving, and objects are almost always closer than they appear. A boating accident attorney will tell you that there is no excuse for not keeping your boat well maintained and well stocked with safety equipment to ensure the safety of not only your friends and family but of other boaters around you as well.

Maintaining a proper lookout, monitoring speed, wake, and marine waste should always be at the forefront of your mind when you set out on the water. Drugs and alcohol can hamper your ability to perform any of these functions to an acceptable standard. Take your responsibility as a captain seriously, just as you would getting behind the wheel of a car.

If you have experienced any harm in your time on the water, then a good Tampa boating accident lawyer may be able to ensure that you receive the proper compensation.

Some cities have very active boating communities, but not everyone is fully aware of their responsibilities. A personal injury lawyer in Tampa can help you to keep safe and have fun every time you set sail. John C. Murrow has been serving the Tampa Bay area since 2005, fighting to protect the legal rights of boat operators and ensuring that accident victims receive the compensation they deserve.

Who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats

The Pecking Order for Boats and Vessels

There is a clear hierarchy for which boats are to be yielded to in a given situation to establish a protocol for any given situation.

Vessels not under command are always to be yielded to. These are watercraft that through some exceptional circumstances are unable to properly maneuver due to mechanical failure or some other form of extreme distress. All other boats are expected to give way to a vessel that is not under command. Avoiding a collision is the priority.

Vehicles with a restricted ability to move are next in consideration. These could be boats that are experiencing equipment difficulties or are powered by something that prevents free and full movement, for example, powerboats are always obligated to yield to vehicles that are operating via sail. Striking a sailboat head-on could result in severe damage and injury; because the sailboat operator would find it difficult or impossible to change course rapidly, the other vessels are responsible for avoiding a collision.

Very large vessels that have very deep drafts should also be operated around. Very large military or shipping vessels simply don't have the same amount of water to operate in as more nimble craft and thus should be given ample room to maneuver.

Next are commercial fishing vessels. While not as humongous as large tankers or aircraft carriers, they are often casting drag nets that can limit the craft's agility and damage the equipment of any other craft that get too close. These are craft operating in a major global industry, so pilots should expect that they will not be able to navigate as easily as a quick powerboat.

Powerboats are expected to yield to most other boats and vessels because of their exceptional capabilities. They can turn and control their speed much more quickly than large craft with deeper drafts or other boats that are in the process of using special equipment or under sail.

Finally, let's consider paddleboats and kayaks. Coast Guard rules indicate that more maneuverable vessels must yield to less maneuverable vessels. Generally, people on physically powered vessels such as kayaks or paddleboards are expected to yield to most other vessels. Larger, slower watercraft like sailboats are so much less maneuverable by comparison that they can essentially be considered static features on the water. However, fast, maneuverable powerboats would be expected to yield to canoes and kayaks.

Who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats


The give-way vessel and stand-on vessel roles are only useful if pilots know how to properly fulfill those functions in any given situation that two watercraft might come across one another. Luckily, the maritime community has well-defined maneuvering protocols as long as the pecking order and proper operations are followed.

The Crossing Rule

Assuming that two powerboats are meeting one another, the crossing rule states that the boat approaching on the port (left side) assumes the role of the give-way vessel and must then break to keep the stand-on craft on the port side. Captains should give one short sound of the horn and make wide turns to communicate their intentions to one another.

The Meeting Situation

A meeting situation is when two boats of equal status in the pecking order are approaching each other bow to bow. In this case, helmsmen should sound one short blast at each other to signal that they plan on passing by keeping each watercraft on the port side. Two short blasts can be used in special circumstances to signal that one plans on passing the other boat on the starboard side. Meeting situations should be handled with the utmost caution as neither craft is considered the de facto give-way vessel.

The Overtaking Situation

An overtaking vessel is always obligated to move around the vehicle that is being passed. The slower vessel is responsible to maintain speed and course while the overtaking vessel makes its way around the slower boat in front of it. If you are being overtaken, make sure that your movements are slow and predictable.

The rule of overtaking doesn't mean that slower vessels can operate at will. You need to provide an easy and safe environment for the overtaking craft to navigate around you as long as their speed is reasonable for the waterway all nearby vessels are operating in.

Other Rules

U.S. government ships are considered very sensitive government property. Recreational boaters are expected to come no closer than 100 yards and not generate any wake within 500 yards of American government property.

Most watercraft fatalities involve faulty or insufficient safety equipment. Always make sure that your vessel has enough personal flotation devices for the number of people that your craft can safely accommodate.

When in doubt, slow down. There is no penalty for exercising caution when boat traffic is heavy. Too many boaters overestimate how much room they have to work with when two boats are in proximity to one another.

Boating is a rewarding hobby, but it requires an individual that is eager to self-educate, follow the law, and exercise prudence to avoid collisions. If you are involved in a boating accident, contact an experienced boating accident attorney to answer your legal questions and protect your rights.


The blog published by John C. Murrow Law is available for informational purposes only and is not considered legal advice on any subject matter. By viewing blog posts, the reader understands there is no attorney-client relationship between the reader and the blog publisher. The blog should not be used as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed professional attorney, and readers are urged to consult their own legal counsel on any specific legal questions concerning a specific situation.


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