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How to Avoid Boat Collisions

July 6, 2021

Boat collisions and accidents can cause major damages to your vessel and lead to serious injuries or death. Collisions occur when a boat or personal watercraft collides with another vessel or objects like docks, rocks and logs.

It is the responsibility of all pleasure craft operators to avoid collisions or they could face severe penalties and even imprisonment. In this article, we give an overview of Canada’s rules and regulations to follow in order to avoid boat collisions.

Collision Regulations in Canada

As with roads, waterways are also governed by rules. These are known as the Canadian Collision Regulations. These rules regulate any and all crafts on all bodies of water in Canada.

Regulations state that a pleasure craft operator must take immediate and substantial action to prevent a collision with another vessel. Otherwise, if the course is clear, the operator simply maintains speed and course.

Rules for avoiding boat collisions

Collision Regulations govern the nautical Rules of the Road, which identify the stand-on vessel and the give-way vessel in each situation.

The graphic below shows the actions to take when crossing, meeting and overtaking a vessel that approaches within the port, starboard or stern sectors. Following these actions will significantly reduce the likelihood of boat collision.

boating rules of the road

What should the stand-on vessel do?

When one of two vessels must keep out of the way, the other may keep her course and speed. If the vessel required to stay out of the way does not take appropriate action in compliance with these rules, the latter vessel can take action to avoid collision.

What should the give-way vessel do?

A give-way vessel is one that is required by these Regulations to keep out of the way of another vessel. As far as possible, vessels that are directed to remain out of the way of another vessel should take early and substantial action to stay in the clear.

Tips for avoiding boat collisions

In addition to following the rules of the road outlined in the Collision Regulations, the following tips will help you avoid damage, injury or worse resulting from a boat collision.

Avoid collisions by keeping a watchful eye

Pleasure craft operators must navigate safely and share the waterways to avoid creating situations that are risky or potentially dangerous to other boaters, swimmers, wildlife and the environment.

A boat that navigates in a narrow channel or driveway must stay as close to the outer edge of the channel or fairway as possible so long as it is safe and convenient.

An operator must always keep an eye out for hazards or distress signals from other boaters. The Criminal Code of Canada also contains this provision.

Keep away from shipping lanes

Commercial vessels travel along predetermined shipping lanes. These vessels always have the right of way. Their course is hard to change, and they need a long distance to come to a complete halt.

When passing larger vessels or crossing shipping lanes, some boaters fail to appreciate the risk that they take. It is very difficult for the crews of these vessels to see small boats on the water since they are standing high above the water line.

Boaters must therefore never interfere with the passage of large vessels in a shipping lane.

Here are some tips to remember:

  • Watch for others on the water and yield to larger vessels in the safest way possible, taking into account the water and weather conditions
  • Make use of your radar and radio if you have them
  • If possible, navigate in groups of small boats to be more visible
  • Avoid the water when it is foggy or windy
  • Do not approach docked ferries, ferries in transit, towing ships or working fishing vessels
  • When a large ship issues five or more short blasts, this indicates that the situation has reached the point of urgency, and you must get out of the way

Give room to tugboats and other vessels towing or pushing

Tugboats often tow boats behind them with long tow lines. Tow lines can sometimes be so long that they hang below the surface of the water and are almost invisible. Therefore, do not get between a tugboat and its tow line.

In the event your boat hits a submerged tow line, the collision may cause it to capsize or cause serious damage to your vessel, putting everyone on board at risk.

Maintain a safe speed

Since a safe speed depends on the craft and prevailing conditions, the Vessel Operation Restriction Regulations do not specify speed limits.

Always take the following factors into account when determining a safe speed:

  • Visibility
  • Traffic density
  • Wind conditions
  • Tides
  • Currents
  • Ice weather conditions
  • Navigational hazards

If you are not within sight of other vessels and in or near restricted visibility areas, you must navigate at a safe speed at all times, adapting to the circumstances and conditions to avoid collisions.

Keep yourself visible at all times

A small boat is difficult to detect, especially from a large ship, in poor weather conditions or at night. In light of this, you can minimize the risks of collision if you display the correct navigation lights at night and during periods of restricted visibility.

Do not go boating when you are tired or inebriated

Just as with driving a car, don’t operate a boat when you’re tired or sleepy as fatigue can result in poor reaction time and decision-making abilities. Also be aware that boating under the influence (BIU) is just as dangerous as driving under the influence.

What is the first action that the boat operator should take immediately following a collision?

If your boat has been involved in a collision, you should immediately take the following steps:

  1. Make sure that everyone has a PFD or a life jacket on
  2. Verify that all passengers are present and accounted for
  3. Identify any nearby vessels that might be able to help
  4. Check to see if you are at risk of another boat colliding with you
  5. Verify that the hull is in good shape and that no water is rising or collecting inside it
  6. Signal that you need assistance if necessary

Navigate responsibly to avoid boat collisions

Canada’s waterway users and the organizations that govern them share responsibility for safety. It is imperative that boaters operate their vessels safely to avoid collisions with other vessels or objects.

We hope this article has shed some light on how to avoid collisions while boating. If you have not yet obtained your official boat license, this article can serve as a good reference before taking the Canadian boat license exam.