Using Proper Signals When Boating

Boat safely and let others know your intentions...

March 11, 2011

We all know the chaos that would ensue if every driver on the road traveled in any direction he or she wanted, never signaled, had no brake lights and defended that independence fiercely with no worries about ever getting a traffic ticket. But basically, that’s how most people go boating! Sure, there are rules of the road, but many boaters either don’t know them or pay no attention.

While attitudes are changing slowly with the advent of state-required boating certificates and mandatory education, there’s still nobody really enforcing the finer points of the rules – such as signaling your intentions to surrounding vessels. You do this by using your horn with a proscribed pattern of blasts.

Every rule I address here can be found in the U.S. Coast Guard’s rules of the road manual. You can buy a copy at or your local chandlery, or you can simply visit, and download both international and inland rules for free.


**Required Equipment
**Boats shorter than 39.4 feet aren’t required by law to carry a whistle or bell, but must have “some way to make an appropriate signal.” Ergo, every boat built in America has some sort of horn.

If you regularly operate in a region prone to fog, it might be worthwhile to invest in one of the latest loudhailers. Most of these relatively inexpensive systems have preprogrammed fog signals, so you can simply push a button for the type of boat and function you are engaged in, and the hailer automatically sounds the correct signal at the ­appropriate intervals.

**The powered vessel overtaking another vessel must stay out of the way of the vessel ahead. In order to avoid surprises (like collisions), the overtaking vessel must signal both the intent to pass and on which side. One short blast of a horn means you will pass to the right. Two short blasts means you’ll pass to the left (like the fast lane). As with all horn signals, the vessel being overtaken must respond with agreement (by sounding the same signal) or with disagreement (by sounding the danger signal of five short blasts). Note that you can never answer one blast with two or vice versa.


**Head to Head
**Just as we drive cars on the right side of the road here in America, the standard in nautical terms is the same – pass portside to portside. In this case, neither vessel has the right of way. Just to be sure, each boater should sound one short blast on the horn. However, if for some reason you plan to pass starboard to starboard, you would issue two short blasts and hope the oncoming vessel agrees. By the way, those readers who travel down the Mississippi River or certain western rivers to get to open water should remember that a vessel traveling down-current always has the right of way for obvious ­maneuverability reasons.

**Backing Up

While signaling doesn’t seem as ­important for small boats leaving slips in a marina, it can be very important for larger vessels that can’t start and stop on a sand dollar like little outboard boats. Even so, it’s not a bad habit to adopt. Prior to backing, you should sound one long (two seconds will do) and three short (a second or less) blasts on your horn, then proceed. The signal doesn’t require agreement or response from surrounding vessels.


**Approaching a Bridge
**Most drawbridges have marine VHF radio communications. Often, the expedient way to get a bridge to open is to call the tender on channel 13 or 9 (whichever is used locally). However, in the rare case where the bridge tender has no radio or has taken a nap, the appropriate horn signal consists of one long blast followed by a single short blast. Standard procedure dictates the bridge tender warn boats with five short blasts when the spans start to close. If you happen to be under the bridge when you hear those horns, respond immediately with five or more short blasts so the tender can hold open the spans until you’re clear.

**In a Fog
**The rules of the road clearly state that if you are in fog and you hear another vessel’s signal, you must slow dramatically or stop until you determine there is no risk of collision. If you hear a horn in the fog, know that it’s a vessel underway. The specific combination of signals will tell you the kind of vessel. If you hear a bell or gong, that’s a vessel that is stopped for some reason – ­probably anchored or aground.

A powerboat underway in fog must sound one long blast every two minutes or less.


If that boater is stopped (but can maneuver), he must sound two long blasts about two seconds apart at ­intervals of two minutes or less.

A vessel engaged in fishing (lines, nets or trawling) must sound one long and two short blasts, again at intervals no longer than two minutes.
Interestingly, this is the same signal required of a sailboat under sail. Go figure.

**When Anchored
**Anchored boats shorter than 39.4 feet LOA must make some noise (preferably with a bell) every two minutes or less. Vessels larger than 39.4 but shorter than 328 feet must rapidly ring a loud bell for about five seconds at intervals of one minute or less.

Like auto insurance, this ­information is something you might never need. However, suddenly needing it even once will make your effort to know these rules very worthwhile.


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