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Who is Responsible for Avoiding a Collision Between Two Boats?

Written by Anthony Roberts / Fact checked by Jonathan Larson

who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats

Although seasoned skippers might laugh at the question, greenhorn boat owners would want to know who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats.

Fortunately, the answer is straightforward. Anyone who operates a water vessel is responsible for avoiding a collision with another watercraft, be it a boat, PWC, or ship.

Continue reading to learn the details of this life-saving rule.

Boat Collision Avoidance: Who’s Responsible?


The International Maritime Organization’s International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) is explicit about who bears responsibility for avoiding collisions between boats.

Rule 3 of the international guideline identifies a vessel’s owner, master (or captain), or crew must be responsible for ensuring the watercraft doesn’t figure in a collision and to abide by the rules of seamanship.

Some folks might argue that crewmates lack the knowledge and skills of a skipper. After all, the boat captain has the license to operate the watercraft, and they wouldn’t get the authority if they failed boating safety and other regulatory requirements.

The primary responsibility for collision avoidance rests on the boat captain. However, the second-in-command can take charge if the skipper cannot dispense his functions.

Hence, it’s plausible for the crew to assume responsibility for avoiding a collision with another vessel if the more senior crew is unavailable.

Interestingly, captains, boat owners, and crew aren’t the only ones with roles to play in effective boat collision prevention and avoidance.

Understanding Boat Collision Responsibility

Avoiding collisions in bodies of water is the skipper’s principal responsibility. However, other entities have roles to play, ensuring navigable waters remain safe.

1. Role of boat operators


Boat operators, skippers, or captains are at the helm of any ship. They are the directors, managers, and CEOs of watercraft, ensuring everyone under them follows orders to guarantee a safe voyage.

Vessel size doesn’t matter in preventing vessel collisions. Unsurprisingly, the query, “What should a PWC operator do?” merits the same answer as “What should a cargo ship captain do?”

According to Boat-Ed, personal watercraft (PWC) and boat operators must observe the following actions whenever in the water.

  • Knowing, appreciating, and observing the different rules and regulations (i.e., give-way vs. stand-on vessel and sound/visual signals) about maneuvering watercraft in navigable waters or navigating bodies of water
  • Learning and obtaining mastery in using navigational tools and keeping an eye on these technologies when underway
  • Keeping a sharp watch (a requirement of COLREGS Rule 5), assigning a crewmember to stay on a ship’s high point to watch for other vessels, obstacles, or circumstances that could undermine the vessel’s integrity and safety.
  • Recognizing the signs of fatigue, stress, or exhaustion and turning over control of the vessel to the second most senior crew or whoever is trustworthy enough to pilot the watercraft.
  • Avoiding sailing if intoxicated (or under the influence of alcohol and other controlled substances) or passing the control of the vessel to an equally competent and sober crew
  • Observing safe speed at all times, especially in low-light conditions and heavy traffic
  • Heightening situational awareness before initiating any vessel action (i.e., turning the watercraft only after ensuring no other vessels are in the vicinity or within the boat’s path)
  • Observing caution when steering a vessel with the sun’s glare bouncing off the water’s surface
  • Recognizing the risk of floating debris after a storm or heavy rainfall

2. Role of boat manufacturers


Although the IMO’s COLREGS 72 doesn’t underline the responsibility of boat manufacturers in preventing vessel collisions, we can still deduce from the different rules the roles boat companies play.

For example, maintaining a watchful eye on the waters require a platform high enough to let a crewmember safely “perch” on and serve as a lookout. Communication systems must also be present to allow the lookout to notify the captain on in the bridge if the ship must avoid collisions.

Boat manufacturers must also equip their vessels with reliable navigational aids (i.e., global positioning system, magnetic compass, radar, and sonar).

A boat captain can only do so much to prevent collisions. Hence, boat manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the watercraft is seaworthy and has safety features and tools that guarantee a safer voyage.

3. Role of regulatory authorities


Maritime authorities (including the US Coast Guard and local transportation departments) must enforce navigation rules (i.e., COLREGS 72 and state-related boating laws).

Enforcement involves periodic assessment of vessel seaworthiness, including compliance of captains and their crew to local and international rules.

4. Role of boating associations and organizations


Although their responsibility doesn’t include enforcement, boating associations can equip members (skippers, captains, and boat owners) with the right competencies to minimize the risk of accident or injury when operating a watercraft.

Each organization has a vision and mission for its members. Most associations dedicate their services to training, continuing education, and member support. Examples of boating associations include the American Boating Association and the American Boat and Yacht Council.

Factors Influencing Boat Collision Responsibility

Determining who or what is responsible for a boat collision can be a complex process. There are a lot of variables to consider, not to mention the specific laws and regulations of different states.

With that said, here are some common contributors to the assignment of responsibility in any sea-borne accident:


  • Rules of Navigation

Boaters should know that each waterway has its rules and regulations governing boat operations. These rules outline the proper navigation procedures. Violating these rules (i.e., right-of-way, speed limits, and overtaking protocols) can affect the determination of responsibility in case of a collision.

  • Witnesses and Evidence

Eyewitness testimonies and documented evidence can provide valuable insight into the circumstances leading to the collision. Witness statements, photographs, videos, and other evidence can help establish the sequence of events determining who is responsible.

  • Speed and Distance

The speed at which boats operate and the distance between them can help assign responsibility. For instance, if a boat travels at an excessive speed or fails to maintain a safe distance when two boats are operating in the same general area, it may be deemed responsible for a collision.

  • Negligence

If a boat fails to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm or damage to others, it’s considered to have acted negligently.

Prominent examples are operating the boat recklessly, not maintaining a proper lookout, or violating boating rules. Should the reckless behaviors lead to a collision, negligence will contribute to assigning responsibility.

  • Contributory Negligence

In some cases, both parties involved in a collision are both to blame. When both parties fail to exercise reasonable care, and their actions or inactions contribute to the collision, contributory negligence occurs. In such instances, responsibility may be allocated based on the degree of fault of each party.

  • Vessel Type and Size

Larger vessels, such as commercial ships, may have more stringent navigational requirements and may be assigned a higher responsibility than smaller recreational boats.

  • Visibility and Lighting

Lights, signals, and navigation aids are crucial for maintaining visibility and avoiding collisions. If a party fails to use adequate lighting or follow visibility requirements, it can be held responsible in case of a collision.

Safety Measures for Collision Avoidance

Boaters can observe ways to avoid having a collision by leveraging innovative technologies and improving situational awareness.

1. Technology and innovation


Manufacturers can equip their boats with the latest technological innovations to make collision avoidance more effective. Meanwhile, operators and skippers must learn how to use these systems. The US Coast Guard recommends the following collision avoidance tools.

  • Radar, especially its variable range marker and electronic bearing line technologies
  • Automatic Identification System (AIS) for monitoring other vessels’ position, heading, speed, and other parameters
  • Hailers with foghorn and “listen” features
  • Night vision technologies, including thermal cameras and low-light scopes

2. Practical tips for maintaining situational awareness


Maintaining situational awareness is a collective responsibility. Everyone on board the vessel must be aware of their surroundings, including situations that could undermine vessel safety. The following tips should help boaters and crew maintain and improve situational awareness.

  • Use all senses, including smell, touch, taste, hearing, and sight.
  • Learn the correct operation of boat collision tools, including how to operate them simultaneously.
  • Don’t be afraid to cross-check or challenge your observations. Some folks might have a different interpretation of your assessments, but you can always conclude.
  • Recognize the symptoms of fatigue and stress because these can impair sensory perception and judgment.
  • Acknowledge the risk of false information. For example, inaccurate chart and AIS data can make you perform an action that compromises vessel safety.
  • If you’re the boat owner or operator, teach your crew how to improve situational awareness. Mentoring is vital when you’re underway.

Legal Implications and Consequences


Boat collisions can have significant legal implications. Parties could sue one another, blaming the other for causing the collision. It can lead to expensive legal remedies.

Unfortunately, criminal liabilities can take center stage in fatal boat collisions. Convictions can involve a prison term and monetary compensation to the victims. Commercial boat owners can lose their business in such cases.

Some boat collisions can also have an environmental impact. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill was due to the supertanker colliding with the Bligh Reef. The collision might not be with another ship, but the incident underscores the environmental consequences of such an occurrence.

Frequently Asked Questions


What should I do if I witness a boat collision?

Witnessing a boat collision requires the boat operator to ensure their safety before proceeding to the accident site. Assessing the situation is crucial before calling the Coast Guard or emergency services.

If people are in the water, boaters must help them get to safety. Giving your account of the incident is crucial when authorities begin their investigation.

What role do navigational aids play in collision prevention?

Navigational tools improve boat collision prevention by enabling vessels to increase their situational awareness across the vast expanse of the sea and other bodies of water, including waterways with heavy traffic.


Who is responsible for avoiding a collision between two boats? Although the vessel captain, operator, or skipper is primarily accountable for preventing boat collisions, everyone on board must be watchful of their surroundings and report “undermining” circumstances instantly.

Everyone must share observations and interpretations, enabling skippers to make more accurate judgments and avoid colliding with another vessel. Situational awareness is crucial, and boaters can improve their watch-keeping practices by operating navigational aids.

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