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What Should You Do if Another Boat is in Distress? – 6 Important Things

Written by Anthony Roberts / Fact checked by Jonathan Larson

what should you do if another boat is in distress

Newbie boaters have many questions, including “what should you do if another boat is in distress?” Should you ignore it? It is critical to know that maritime laws mandate watercraft to respond to other boats and offer assistance in an emergency.

That is, of course, the short answer. Please continue reading to know the various actions you must take when encountering a boat in distress.

What Should a Boat Operator Do When Encountering a Boat in Distress?

Here are the things you must do when you see a boat in distress.

1. Maneuver your boat to a safe location


Becoming the boat that saves distressed ships is not easy. The first reaction is to approach the distressed vessel as quickly as possible. However, doing so will put yourself and your passengers at risk.

Hence, boat operators must maneuver their vessels at a safe distance from the distressed boat and signal their presence. Then, observe the boat in distress to decide your next course of action, but not before responding to their distress signal and providing the location of your boat.

2. Carefully approach the distressed boat


Carefully maneuver your boat near the distressed ship only if the other watercraft acknowledges your presence or you did not receive any after several signaling attempts.

As you are approaching another boat, look for signs of distress (i.e., listing, smoke, splashes in the water, etc.). Maintain a safe distance from the distressed vessel to avoid colliding with it. If you’re particularly skilled, you can situate your boat parallel to the distressed vessel to locate the people aboard.

3. Ascertain assistance required, if any

Look for people on the other boat or in the water. Call out to them and ask if they require help or assistance. Some boaters prefer leaving their watercraft unattended when diving, snorkeling, or other water-related activities.

It is prudent to think the boat is in distress if there is no one and you assess the watercraft as heavily damaged or in danger of sinking. Please avoid boarding the distressed vessel.

4. Call the Coast Guard


Please remember to report an accident by the quickest means necessary. Call the Coast Guard because they are well-trained and can handle any emergency at sea. Alternatively, you can call 911 or other emergency services, such as 999 or 112. Remember to clarify that you’re calling the coast guard when someone picks up.

Use your boat’s VHF marine radio and issue a mayday call on your unit’s Channel 16 if you assess a life-threatening situation. You can activate your boat’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon if neither is available.

5. Help people onto your boat


The primary responsibility for a vessel operator assisting a boat in distress is getting as many people from the distressed vessel as the responding watercraft can manage.

Prepare enough emergency flotation devices to help distressed people onto your boat. Ideally, they should already have their life jackets on to facilitate easier access to the responding watercraft.

6. Exchange information and assist authorities

Exchange contact information with distressed people, giving you sufficient data to assist authorities in their accident investigation. The pieces of information are also crucial in future communications.

Please stay connected with the authorities because they might need some assistance. Listen to their instructions and leave the scene only when told.

Are Boat Operators Really Necessary to Provide Aid?


Regulation 33, Chapter V of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLA) requires “the master of a ship at sea” to “assist any persons in distress at sea.” Moreover, the international treaty expects the “responding” ship to proceed at “all speed.”

The rule also underscores a boat operator’s obligation to assist a watercraft in distress, regardless of nationality, race, or status of the individuals in distress or the surrounding circumstances.

However, the ship captain has the discretion not to assist a boat in distress if it’s unnecessary (i.e., other rescuers are in the area) or unreasonable (i.e., doing so might compromise passenger safety).

In such cases, the boat operator must document the rationale for failing to assist. Constant communication is also necessary with other vessels in the area and those responding to the emergency.

When Should I Help?

The law dictates you should help a boat in distress if the boater distress signal is within your proximity. To properly gauge when help is necessary, you must understand when a boat is considered “in distress.”

Paragraph 13, Chapter 1 of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), adopted in April 1979, defines “distress” as a situation where people or another watercraft are in imminent and grave danger, requiring prompt assistance.

However, Paragraph 1-1, Regulation 33, Chapter V of SOLA also states that boat operators must ensure that responding to a distress call does not “further endanger life at sea.”

Hence, boat operators must ensure their passengers’ safety before responding to a boat in distress. If the captain deems steering the vessel to assist will put his passengers’ safety at risk, he can opt not to help but must document it.

Things to Note When Reacting With a Distressed Boat


Please remember the following when interacting with a distressed boat.

1. Recognize the risks

Helping others is admirable. However, putting yourself and your passengers (if any) in harm’s way is unnecessary.

Hence, boat operators must assess the situation and recognize the risks of helping. For example, a distressed boat that ran aground in some rocks is a sign not to maneuver your boat next to the one in distress.

Diving into the water to save distressed folks before a boat capsizes is heroic. But what if the vessel pulls you down with it? Therefore, you should avoid doing so as well.

2. Help immediately, in any way, but properly

Any form of help is welcome, but it should be executed properly.

For instance, jumping onto the vessel is ill-advised, as you can slip and injure yourself. A more appropriate approach would be to find the person in distress and throw them a line with a flotation device or a life jacket at the end. After all, all watercraft must have these safety devices.

A fire extinguisher is sufficient for a small fire. However, only professionals can put out an uncontrollable fire. Evacuating the boat occupants as quickly as possible is the next most logical thing to do.

Frequently Asked Questions


What is the first priority if they are involved in an accident with another vessel?

Your priority is to keep everyone safe and prepare medical aid accordingly. Like any accident, a boat operator must determine if anyone (passengers and crew) needs immediate medical attention (i.e., injuries) and render first aid if necessary while waiting for emergency responders to arrive.

The boat operator must also position the watercraft to avoid blocking the path of other boats before stopping the engine. If someone goes overboard, others must secure the person by throwing a line or a flotation device. Jumping into the water should be the last resort.

What is the first thing a boat operator should do immediately following a collision?

The first thing a boat operator should do immediately following a collision is to stop the watercraft’s engine and drop the anchor to avoid drifting away from the accident scene.

The boat operator must also ensure the watercraft is not in the path of other vessels before stopping the boat. Only then can the boater assess if anyone needs medical attention and send a boat emergency signal.


What should you do if another boat is in distress? A good Samaritan on the road is similar to a good Samaritan in the water.

Assess the situation from a distance before approaching the distressed vessel for a closer inspection. Ascertain whether it is “in distress,” or the people are.

Call emergency help immediately and take the necessary action to move as many people from the distressed boat as your vessel can safely accommodate. Obtain as much information as you can and assist authorities.

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