Boating 101: Your Top Boating Questions Answered

Written by Carolyn Jackson

If you are just getting started in the boating world, or maybe you’re just looking for a refresher, you might have some questions on your mind. Just like taxes, no one teaches you how to be a great boat owner in grade school. This article will answer some of the top boating questions, such as ‘how to avoid colliding with another boat’ and ‘what is the beam of a boat?’ These are the types of questions you probably have in the back of your mind but are unsure how to find the answers to.


Having questions about boating is entirely normal. It’s also completely normal to not know the answers to those questions or to feel like you should already know the answers. Pro Tip? No one teaches you all this stuff. 


Boating is about fun, but it is also about safety. The questions we’re answering today are focused on boating safety so you can confidently cruise the open waters, prepared for anything. 


Key Takeaways:

  • No one teaches you everything about boating and boating safety; it’s okay to ask questions
  • To avoid colliding with other boats on the water, you need to understand the “rules of the water”
  • Accidents happen on the water; it is what you do next that is most important


How to Avoid Colliding with Another Boat

A worst-case scenario for boating is a collision. Although boating collisions are rare, they are possible, and it is in every boater’s best interest to understand two things: 1) how to avoid a collision and 2) what to do if a collision occurs. 


Advice for avoiding collision on the water and for safe boating: 


  • Do not operate a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Do not operate a boat if you are drowsy
  • Maintain a safe speed
    • Safe speed is defined as “A speed less than the maximum at which the operator can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and stop within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions” by boater-ed. 
  • Pay attention to signs 
  • Scan the water for other watercraft 
    • Boats, canoes, kayaks, personal watercraft, paddle boarders, etc. 
  • Scan the water for debris and other hazards
    • Trees, shallow areas, trash, etc. 
  • Take a boaters course to learn the “rules of the water”
    • Each state has different rules, regulations, and safety guidelines for their waters, go to Boat-Ed to find a course in your state that you can take online.

One of the best things you can do to avoid a collision is to understand the “rules of the water.” There are specific rules and guidelines agreed upon by boaters for how to pass, turn, and drive a boat on the water. These rules are in place to help avoid collisions and accidents and keep all boaters safe. 


Some of the most prominent recommendations from the boating safety course include: 


  • When Crossing Paths with Another Boat
    • When a boat is going straight, and another boat approaches from the left or right (imagine an intersection), there is some etiquette to remember. Whichever boat is on the right has the right of way and should hold its course and speed. The other boat will give way and yield to the boat on the right.
  • When a Faster Boat Approaches from Behind/When You Approach a Slower Boat Ahead
    • When two boats are going in the same direction, the boat in front is called the stand-on vessel, and the following boat is called the give-way vessel.
    • When a give-way vessel wants to pass the stand-on vessel, the give-way vessel must sound a signal to the front boat via a sound. To pass on the right (starboard) side, sound one short horn blast. To pass on the left (port) side, sound two short horn blasts. 
    • Also, note: when you pass a boat, the slower boat has the right to hold its course and speed. If your boat is being passed, you should maintain your course and speed to allow the trailing boat to overtake your vessel safely.  


When Should I Report a Boating Accident?

As we all know, accidents do happen. The best thing to do is to be prepared. There are a few steps to take during an emergency on the water: 


  1. Check on each passenger to see if they are safe
  2. Call emergency services
  • If you have cell reception, call 911; if you’re using a VHF radio, make a distress call on channel 16. 
  • Radio calls have an added advantage: They’ll be heard by other boaters who may be nearby and can assist you.
  • Move the boat out of the path of other vessels, if possible
  • Gather information
    • Assess the damage and determine if the boat is still safe to be on
    • If there was another boat involved, assess the damage and ask if their passengers are okay, and take down their contact information 
  • Report the accident to the Coast Guard
    • Under federal law, a boating accident report must be filed if:
      • Someone is killed
      • Someone is injured badly enough to need medical care beyond the most basic first aid
      • There is damage to the vessels or to property that equals or exceeds $2,000
      • There is a complete loss of a vessel, or a vessel is destroyed
      • Someone disappears from a vessel under circumstances that indicate an injury or death has occurred.
    • How to report an accident to the Coast Guard
      • If the accident is recreational, submit a CG-3865 form
      • Send the form to your state’s Boat Accident Report Database representative, which can be found here. 
  • Report the accident to your insurance carrier

    What is the Beam of a Boat?

    The beam of a boat is the widest point of the vessel from port to starboard. So, if you are standing on your boat, facing the bow (the front), the widest distance from left to right is the beam. The wider the beam of a boat, the more stable the boat will ride on the water. Imagine a cruise ship. When you are on a vessel as large as a cruise ship, it’s hard to sense when the ship is moving. The beam of one of the largest operating cruise ships, the Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, is 215ft. Most cruise ships are in the 100-150ft beam range. 


    Now compare that to an average pontoon boat beam of 8ft, and you can see the difference. Having a wider or narrower beam is not good or bad, but it is something to be aware of. If you need to go through a narrow passage, like under a bridge or through a narrow part of the water, it is always recommended to know your boat’s beam measurements so you can safely pass.


    What Should You Do First if Your Boat Runs Aground?

    It’s a beautifully warm sunny day, and you and your family are all out enjoying a day on the water when you suddenly hear the dreaded “thump thump” scraping the bottom of your boat. You’ve run aground. 


    Don’t worry, this can happen to anyone. Many things can cause running aground: water levels change, obstacles drift in the water, sand shifts, and moves. But what is important is not how you ran aground, but what you do if this does happen. 


    Firstly, stay calm and follow these steps: 


    1. Check for leaks
    • See if there is any water leaking into the boat or any obvious signs of damage inside or outside the boat 
    • If there are leaks, you will need to call emergency services and request a tow
  • If there are no leaks, do NOT put the boat in reverse
    • If you have an outboard engine, lift it out of the water
    • Turn the engine off
  • Shift the boat’s weight as far away from the point of impact as possible to see if you can shimmy off the point of impact. 
  • If this works, check again to ensure the boat is not taking on water and proceed to safety
    • If the boat is taking on water, signal for emergency services via visual distress signals, a phone call to 911, or a call on the VHF marine radio


    How Do I Dock a Boat?

    Cliche or not, practice makes perfect is true in this case. Docking a boat isn’t a skill many of us are blessed with naturally, but it is possible to become a pro with some practice and knowledge. 


    Here are some things to keep in mind when docking a boat:  

    1. Use buoys on the side of the boat that will be flush with the dock
    • These will prevent knicks, dents, and scratches from running into a dock or other boats while you are still learning
  • Have others direct you
    • This is probably the most effective way to make sure you are on track and lined up to dock
  • Get familiar with the boat’s reverse function
    • It’s not like a car, but it is just as useful in this scenario
    • Remember, boats don’t have breaks, so go slow
  • Take a moment to consider the conditions of the water and air
    • Are there waves? Is there a lot of wind? Take these into account when making decisions during docking
  • Get to know your boat
    • Every boat is a different size, weight, horsepower, etc. — become familiar with your boat’s dimensions and power capabilities, so you don’t make any avoidable mistakes
  • If you are docking at night, leave the dock lights on and be sure your boat lights are on to optimize visibility 

    Other common questions


    How much does a boat cost? We crunch the numbers here.


    How much does a yacht cost? Admittedly yachts are very fun to research. Read our analysis here


    How to get a boating license? Glad you asked. We did the research for you


    How long can you finance a boat? We’re happy you’re in it for the long haul. Read our ultimate boat loan guide to find out more. 


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