Avoiding collisions at sea – how to stay safe on the water

By in Boat Handling, Crewing skills, Navigation, Preparation | 0 comments

Boats have many blind spots, including the headsails of sailing boats. Always keep a lookout, stay safe and remember that whatever their size or type, all boats have a responsibility to avoid collisions with others at sea.

If you are heading out on the water for the first time after many months, it would be wise to remind yourself about some of the collision rules, just to be on the safe side. Anyone in charge of a boat needs to know what to do in a potentially dangerous close quarters situation and how to act accordingly. It is important to know the ‘who gives way to whom’ hierarchy and this should be learnt by all boat operators. As well as this:

  • Always be alert for other vessels which could be out of control or at risk of going aground.
  • If another vessel of any size is out of control it is up to you to get out of its way, even if you have right of way.
  • Always be prepared to take avoiding action before it is too late.

Learn all of the nautical ColRegs Rules of the Road for power boating and sailing, in our comprehensive reference app, which includes a quiz to test yourself!

Keeping a lookout

Keep a proper lookout at all times, whether inside a harbour or out at sea. Keeping a lookout includes monitoring radar – AIS and GPS chart plotters should also be checked regularly. Look out for lobster pots and other floating obstacles.

  • Check all around you, not just ahead. 
  • Monitor all vessels in your vicinity. 
  • Check the bearings of boats that could be on a collision course with you.
  • Use sight, hearing and instruments.
  • Listen for sound signals and engine noise, especially in poor visibility. 
  • Checks for lobster pots, channel markers and natural obstacles.

Safe speed

Keeping to a safe speed will help reduce the risk of colliding with others, but what exactly is meant by a safe speed? Remember that fast boats should respect other water users and check their wash is not disturbing others.

With so many types and sizes of vessel out on the water, a safe speed will vary according to the design and capabilities of a particular boat and the specific conditions and circumstances it finds itself in.

Here are some reminders about what keeping to a safe speed means in practice:

  • State of visibility – slow down in fog, rain, mist or excessive glare from the sun.
  • Traffic density – take particular note of fishing vessels and when navigating in narrow channels.
  • Manoeuvrability – travel at a speed that will allow you to either manoeuvre out of the way or stop in order to avoid a potential collision.
  • At night – slow down if background light from the shore or from your own lights interferes with your night vision.
  • Sea state – reduce speed in rough conditions, especially those caused by wind against tide.
  • Remember that a safe speed can often be less than a harbour speed limit.
  • A yacht entering a crowded harbour under full sail is most likely sailing too fast.
  • Slow down in poor visibility, even if you have radar on.

Risk of collision

The risk of collision can be determined by taking a series of compass bearings of an approaching vessel. If the bearing of the approaching vessel does not change then the two vessels are on a collision course.

Narrow channels

Here are some reminders about narrow channels:

  • The term narrow channel is relative to the size and draught of vessels using it.
  • Fishing vessels are not allowed to impede the passage of others using a channel.
  • Vessels crossing a channel must stay clear of other vessels who can only safely navigate within it.
  • Remember your heading is the course you are steering. A bearing is the compass direction between you and another object.
  • Take bearings every minute or so and make a note of them.
  • When at close range risk of collision can still exist with a very large vessel, even if the bearing is changing.

Learn all of the nautical ColRegs Rules of the Road for power boating and sailing, in our comprehensive reference app, which includes a quiz to test yourself!

Happy boating and stay safe on the water!

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