BEWARE Matey! Have You Learned How Should You Pass A Fishing Boat Safely?

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How should you pass a fishing boat? It is a simple question, but it often doesn't get asked until the situation arises. This can cause a lot of confusion and frustration for everybody. Along with obvious safety precautions, it is wise to designate a passenger to be a lookout if you have one or two on-board with you. This can help you stay vigilant, even when attending to equipment or other passengers while out on the water, especially if you should encounter a commercial fishing boat. They use expensive equipment that can get damaged by your boat as well as cause damage to your boat in return, if you get caught in the trawling lines. Their nets can span far past the stern of the boat and cannot be seen from above the surface, especially since a lot of the action happens along the seabed. So, how should you pass a fishing boat? But still maneuver in a way that avoids all the fancy fishing equipment?

The answer to that question relies on the specifics of the situation. What kind of vessel are you operating? From which direction are you approaching the fishing vessel or is it approaching your boat? Also, the weather conditions determine what kind of methods of communication to use: lights or sounds. Of course, when in doubt, turn to your handy VHF radio to talk to the other skippers out on the water.

How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat?: Boating Etiquette

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Knowing "how should you pass a fishing boat?" is more than just knowing the rules of driving a boat. Any good skipper should have a feel for their boat (how long it takes her to spend up or slow down) and should know how to handle the various kinds of situations that may arise while out on the water.

At every dock or harbor there's always “that guy” who doesn't realize the size of his wake or who doesn't sound off when leaving his slip. To better understand how to pass a fishing boat without risking the chance of a collision, you are going to need to know at least some of the basics of boating etiquette. Especially if you don't want to be “that guy.” Your rowdy neighbors on the docks may even notice your level of consideration and follow your lead.
Whether you are a seasoned skipper or new to the ways of the water, there is a certain level of common sense needed to operate such a heavy piece of machinery. Boating etiquette is the practice of this and of being considerate of others who are also using the water ways. Going slow in no wake zones, staying to the right of any channels or harbors, and sounding the appropriate signals when the situation arises are easy, but effective ways to keep your neighbors friendly.

Before continuing onto your question, "how should you pass a fishing boat?", we should cover what some basic nautical terms first. Some words can be obvious or more well-known. Regardless, they are all important in this article.

General Definitions

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It is not well known but the term “vessel” refers to any craft that can be used or is capable of being used as a means of transportation on water. A power-driven vessel refers to any vessel propelled by machinery. A sailing vessel is boat that can be outfitted with both sails and an outward motor. However, how the vessel is operating at the time of crossing is how you would characterize the vessel. Any vessel that is “underway” is moving and not at anchor, or made fast ashore.

When a vessel is “restricted in her ability to maneuver” this means for whatever reason, they go first. Regardless of what powers the boat, it is the stand on vessel while you give way to any change in course. A “vessel engaged in fishing” means the boat probably has nets, lines, and other fishing equipment operating which will limit maneuverability. When a vessel is “not under command,” it doesn't operate as intended. This can be due to engine or other mechanical failure.

When referring to who has the right to go first in a given situation, that boat is often called the “stand on” vessel, and when a vessel should let the other set the course and stay out of their way is referred to as the “give-way” vessel.

Parts of the boat can also be confusing to some new boatists. The bow refers to the front of the ship, and the stern is the back. Starboard side is the right side of the boat when facing the bow, and port side is the left side. At night, just like on planes, you will see a green light on the starboard (right) side and a red light on the port (left) side. If you find yourself out on the water at night, use these lights to help you determine which direction another vessel is traveling.

Preventing Accidents on the Water

Along with designating a passenger as a lookout, there is another important aspect about traveling on the water. You have no brakes. Instead, to slow down or stop, you use astern propulsion to go in reverse (and you should signal with your horn before doing so). You need enough space between you and other objects in the water to have enough time to slow down before hitting the object and avoid a collision. You should also be taking this into consideration when coming to a crossing with another vessel on the open water.

​Using a Marine Radio

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When using the radio, it is important to remember the distress channel is channel 16. The radio should be left on this channel in case a distress call from a nearby boat comes in. However, to simply communicate over the radio with a boat not in distress, connect through that channel than quickly agree on another channel to transfer to, as to keep the distress channel open and free of unnecessary chatter. Another common channel to reach boaters on is channel 9.

Remember that a radio is not a phone. So, keep your conversations short and to the point so others can use the channel. Also, anyone in the area with a VHF radio can tune in and hear your conversation.

​Sea Yarn

A lot of the old salty skippers use an old poem, known as Sea Yarn, however, the author is unknown.

Rules of the Road at Sea

When all three lights I see ahead,
I turn to starboard and show my red.
Green to green, red to red,
Perfect Safety, go ahead.
But if to starboard red appear,
It's my duty to keep clear.
To act as judgement,
Says is proper,
Turn to starboard,
Back, or stop her.
And if upon my port is seen,
a steamer's starboard
light of green.
I hold my course and watch to see,
That green to port keeps clear of me.
Both in safety and in doubt,
always keep a good look out.
In danger with no room
to turn,
ease her, stop her, go astern.

Source: Unknown (Used by many as a way to memorize the Navigational Rules.)

​Who Goes First?

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It usually doesn't matter who got to the point of crossing first or who has the bigger ship (although, it might seem that way). Who goes first depends on what powers their vessel (wind or motor), how easily the boats can maneuver, along with which direction the boat are approach each other.

All emergency vessels and any vessel not under command (control) are stand on vessels to all others when on the water. A vessel may not be under command for a number of reasons, whether it is a mechanical malfunction or something is damaged. The skipper should signal any incoming boats accordingly.

Commercial fishing vessels are also stand on vessels to all others, if engaged in fishing. This is due to the fact that they have heavy duty trawls (nets) that are working to catch hundreds of pounds of fish. These lines and nets can damage your boat and their equipment if you get tangled in it.

Power (motor)-driven vessel should give way to sailing vessels. If a sailboat is using an outward motor, then it is considered a power-driven vessel at that moment and should give way to any sailing vessels passing by.

If you are kayaking or paddle boarding in a high traffic area, stay to the right. As the slower vessel, you have the right-of-way. You can use a whistle to make the same sound signals a bigger boat would do with their horn. Even though you have the “right of way” bigger boats can move much faster than kayaks or canoes. Consider letting them by first and get out of the way, if it is more convenient.

How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat?: Using & Understanding Sound & Light Signals

Knowing where to go depends on your position with the other vessel and what kind of vessel you are driving. Using the old Sea Yarn poem, you can how to handle a crossing with another boat, or you can refer to the US Coast Guard's Navigational Rules or Marine Collision Regulations for more detailed instructions.

Sound Signals

Sound signals should only used in weather conditions with good visibility. In cases of low visibility, sound signals can be distracting and confusing if the source can be easily located. In these situations, it is best to use light signals. When in doubt, reach for the VHF radio.

Types of Sound Signals

A short blast of the horn refers to a horn blast that lasts at most two seconds. A prolonged (long) blast refers to a horn blast that lasts at least four seconds and at most six seconds.

When getting underway, don't forget to signal. Use one prolonged blast of your horn to do this. This let other boats around the docks, harbour, or channel that you are just started moving along. When you are about to back up, you should give your horn three short blasts. This warns other boaters that you're about to use astern propulsion. If you need to back up to get out of your slip in the docks, you'd use one prolonged blast to signal you've just started moving and then three short blasts to signal that you're moving backwards.

When coming to a point of crossing with another vessel, it is important to use your horn (or lights) when appropriate. This minimizes confusion and prevents chances of collision. Use one short horn blast to signal the other boat that you are maneuvering to your starboard side. Two short blasts of your horn signals to the other boat that your changing your course to port side.

Passing Another Vessel

When approaching another vessel from behind, they may be towing something and it might be bigger than what you see on the surface. To avoid any confusion, signal as soon as a crossing is eminent.

To signal to another boat that you intend to pass them up on their starboard side, use two long horn blasts followed by one short one. To signal that you want to maneuver to their port side use two long, then two short horn blasts. If they agree with your maneuver, they will send back a signal meaning “I agree,” which is one long, one short, one long, and one short blast of the horn.

Sound Signals to Use During Low-Visibility

During times of thick fog or storm clouds approaching, there are a couple singles to use when you are stopped or not under command of your vessel. These include using two prolonged horn blasts to signal you are at a stand still in the water, but you still have control over your boat. If you don't have command of your vessel (or you have limited maneuverability), you would use one prolonged blast followed by two short blasts. Any vessel can also use this sound sequence to signal that they are towing or fishing.

There are also times when you might be coming around a bend in foggy weather. Seasoned skippers use one prolonged horn blast to audibly warn others that they are approaching a bend in the waterway. Skippers may also sound this warning (one long horn blast) every two minutes while traveling at times of low visibility.

​Using Sound Signals at Anchor

If you're at anchor with restricted visibility (due to the weather), and you think there may be a chance of collision, give one long blast followed by three short blasts of the horn.

If you see someone approaching you while anchored and they are less than 100 meters away, use a bell, and then hit a gong once. If you think they are more than 100 meters away from you, only use the bell, at five second intervals.

Light Signals

Light signals are better seen at night, but they should still be used in all weather conditions. The types of light visible will also tell you what type of vessel you're approaching. Since bigger vessels will need more space to maneuver and they usually have more lights, so give them plenty of space if you see them coming.

Types of Lights

The masterlight is the main light of a vessel, which you should be able to see from every direction, except from directly behind the vessel. It is placed over the aft and fore centerline and should have a visibility of at least five miles.

The sidelights should be visible from at least three miles away, but they should be just as visible from behind as they are in front of the boat. The sidelights refer to the green light on the boat's starboard side and the port side has a red light. So, when a ship is moving away from you, the red light will be on the left side of the boat and the green light will be visible on the right side of the boat.

The stern light will have the same characteristics of the masterlight, but it will slightly to the right of the aft and fore centerline. Except, the sternlight doesn't need as much of a visibility arc.

“Engaged in Fishing” Lights on Fishing Vessels

When large vessels (especially commercial) are engaged in a specific activity that limits mobility or distracts them from their surroundings, they will usually display a specific light when engaged in that activity.

When engaged in fishing, but not underway, commercial fishing boats will often display a green light above the master light and sternlight. If they are underway, they will be displaying their side (port and starboard) lights.

​Using Light Signals

While the lights are always on, the masterlight can be used in the same way the horn is used to signal other boats of intended maneuvers. A short light flash is only one or two seconds at the longest. A long flash of light lasts from four to six seconds.

​How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat?

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Passing a fishing boat can be a daunting task if you're not familiar with the poem Sea Yarn or if you don't have your boating etiquette down pat.

Because safety is everyone's first priority, we would like to stay away from "who has the Right-of-Way?" kind of thinking. Instead, when two boats approach each other, we hope everyone's main objective in this situation is to avoid an accident.

Every type of commercial vessel has their own light signals to warn others of their current status regarding operation. For example, a buoy “handler” has a specific light for when the driver is repairing/replacing a buoy and fishing vessels are no different.

How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat?: Passing From Behind

When you come up from behind a fishing boat, keep a safe distance. They may have a trawl line operating and they should have the proper lights displayed if they are.

If you have enough space, signal to pass them on their starboard side. If they accept your maneuver, they should've sent the same signal back. If they don't, they will use the danger signal. If they fail to signal back, assume they didn't hear your signal.

If for whatever reason there is not enough space to pass the fishing boat on the starboard side, signal with one long, one short, another long, and then another short blast of the horn to signal to the boat that you intend to overtake the vessel on her port side.

Be sure to leave enough room behind the fishing boat to stay clear of their nets and lines. The fishing vessel might slow down a bit. This is to give the lines some slack in case you come to close. Keep going the way you signaled and keep a look out for any changes in the fishing boat's course. Technically, they are the stand on vessel and you have to give way to any changes in their course.


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The US Coast Guard's Navigational Rules were created to prevent a collision while out on the water, but there are times when rules should be broken. While the rules say to pass on the starboard side, there are times when that maneuver is more likely to cause a collision rather than staying on the port side and passing starboard-to-starboard. Sometimes the reasons for breaking the rules are for safety or just because it is more convenient for everyone involved (and still safe).

For example, if you are already on the left side of a channel and so is another vessel, it is best to keep going the way you are going, instead of risking an accident by doing things "by the book." When you are presented with a new and unfamiliar situation (as you are likely to run into one during any boating trip) use your common sense to do what is best (and easiest) for you and the other vessel involved.

A friendly reminder: just because you are unfamiliar with a law or regulation doesn't mean it doesn't apply to you. We hope this will encourage boat operators to study their sound and light signals and the “rules of the road,” before their next boating trip.

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