how should you pass a fishing boat

How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat

If you’ve come across this post then it’s likely that you’re looking for an answer on how should you pass a fishing boat, how to do it right and safe. If so, here’s the short answer:

According to the US Coast Guard’s rules on overtaking fishing boats, vessels should steer to their starboard side when overtaking. This ensures that both the stand-on vessel and the give-way vessel pass each other on their port side.

Boats should also ensure to maintain a minimum wake when passing a fishing boat, and strive to avoid any fishing lines.

DesperateSailors Team

How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat?

The long answer, however, is far more interesting.

Fishing boats have increased greatly in number on our waters over the past few years. Fishing is not only good for the economy, and a great way to make a living, but it’s also a fun and healthy activity to take part in.

With more people taking it up as a hobby, the fishing boat population is seeing a surge, with there being literally over 13 million registered recreational boats in the country. That’s a lot of boats!

Considering such a great increase in boats, we should remember that there will be a proportionate increase in the risk of accidents on the waterways. The statistics also show that up to 700 people die each year in boating accidents. The number of injuries is many times that of deaths.

Whether you’re new to boating or a veteran, there are navigational rules that you should know by heart and apply wisely in order to ensure everyone’s safety in the water.

As the captain of your boat, you are tasked with the immense responsibility of knowing about all the little mistakes and possible accidents that can occur on the water and doing your best to prevent them from happening.

You should also have enough knowledge of all the boating rules so that you can think quickly on your feet in case an emergency arises.

Why is it so Important to Know Overtaking Rules?

To properly understand this, let’s compare it with road traffic rules, which most people are naturally familiar with.

Say you’re on a road and the traffic that day is especially thick. You definitely can’t pass all the traffic and get ahead of the cars in front of you if you don’t have a good understanding of traffic rules.

Lacking that vital knowledge could lead to you crashing into other vehicles and causing damage to them and your own vehicle, not to mention possibly injuring people, or worse.

In the same sense, the waterways also need hard and fast rules to govern naval traffic. Without these rules, everyone would pretty much come up with their own rules on how to pass other boats, which would lead to chaos on the waterways, and a lot more casualties than there are today.

As a way to avoid all that chaos, Federal Laws have directed for some rules to be followed when overtaking other boats, as well as how to ensure your safety and that of other people on your boat and other boats on the water.

how to pass a fishing boat
Boat overtaking

What’s the Right Way to Pass a Fishing Boat?

Before we can answer the question of how to pass a fishing boat the right way, we should answer the question of when to pass it.

This decision boils down to a number of factors based on just how much control the captain has over the boat. It’s really a hierarchy of priorities to keep in mind while overtaking, as listed below:

  • Boats that are being overtaken by other boats.
  • Unmanned vessels.
  • Boats with nets, lines, and other gear that restrict how maneuverable they are in the water.
  • Boats whose maneuverability is restricted by drafts.
  • Fishing boats, unless they’re trawling, in which case they’re an exception.
  • Sailboats.

This is a hierarchy of boats to keep in mind when crossing in the water, from the one to watch out for the most to the one to watch out for the least.

Though it has to be said that that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch out for sailboats at all, just because they’re at the bottom of the list; just that, if a fishing boat and a sailboat were in the same vicinity, the fishing boat would probably have lower maneuverability and so you should be more careful with it.

fishing boat passing
Fishing boat

Fishing boats are usually connected with a fishing net and line. In fact, there are designated lines on waterways that are meant just for fishing boats.

The fishing boats are obliged to stay there and can’t cross the line. You are also not allowed to cross those lines unless you have first communicated with the captain of the fishing boat using signals, telling them that you want to cross.

Whenever you are passing a fishing boat, there are a variety of rules on how you should pass it, depending on the specific circumstances of the overtaking.

What Side do Boats Pass On Fishing Boats?

According to the US Coast Guard’s rules on overtaking fishing boats, vessels should steer to their starboard side when overtaking. This ensures that both the stand-on vessel and the give-way vessel pass each other on their port side. Boats should also ensure to maintain a minimum wake when passing a fishing boat, and strive to avoid any fishing lines.

That said, note that you have to signal the captain of the fishing boat first before you attempt to overtake it. They should also give you an acknowledgment saying it’s okay to pass. There are two main ways to give that signal. If you’re on the fishing boat’s starboard side, you should blast your horn once. If you’re on the port side, blast twice.

As you pass the fishing boat, maintain your concentration and lookout for any hurdles that might appear out of nowhere as you attempt to overtake. If you find it difficult to navigate and maintain the lookout, get one of the crew members or passengers to look out on your behalf, paying special attention to possible oncoming boats, water bodies, or swimmers so they can let you know immediately.

Your biggest priority at this point is to avoid a collision. As a boat captain, your greatest asset, apart from your knowledge of the water and navigation rules, is your common sense. Use it to avoid putting your boat and its occupants in danger.

If the only way you can do that is by overtaking a boat on a side other than the recommended port side, do it. You don’t have to stick to the letter of the law, but you should certainly uphold its intended spirit at all times, which is to ensure the safety of everyone on the water when you’re navigating.

But if You’re the Captain of the Fishing Boat?

What if you’re the captain of the fishing boat? In that case, you have even more responsibility than the captain of the overtaking boat. You’re the one to lead, since you get to keep your side of the waterway. You can neither slow down or speed up your boat, but have to maintain a steady speed so the other boat can easily and safely overtake you.

captain driving the fishing boat
Captain of the fishing boat

It’s very important to maintain a safe speed. Stay aware of speed limits. When you overspeed, you rob yourself of the ability to react quickly in case an emergency or unexpected hurdle arises, and that can happen at any time.

Some of these include getting the wrong signal from an oncoming boat, a sudden very large wake from an overtaking boat, obstacles and hazards, broken boats floating on the waterways, very large bodies of water, the draft of your boat in relation to the depth of the water, the weather, waves and other conditions on the water, and a swimmer or other person getting towed on the wakeboard.

As the captain of your boat, your greatest priority is to avoid accidents. If you forget the rules of navigation, get on the radio and communicate with the captain of the passing boat. You can discuss passing rules with them and come up with something that suits you both.

What About When a Sailboat and Fishing Boat Meet?

Right of way situations exist whenever two boats try to pass each other. One boat gives way, and the other takes.

This applies when fishing boats and sailboats meet as well. In that case, the fish boat has right of way over a sailboat, being allowed to keep its waterway due to its limited maneuverability relative to the sailboat.

What About When You Meet a Fishing Boat Head on?

In that case, one of the boats should indicate intent and the other should promptly respond. In this particular case, there is no stand-on vessel. Both boats should therefore pass each other on their port side, making sure to keep a wide berth.

They should also slow down while crossing each other, especially if there is a very large difference in their sizes. This is good courtesy to prevent the smaller vessel from having to deal with a large wake coming from the larger vessel.

Crossing a Fishing Boat at Night

It’s certainly not ideal to navigate your boat at night in the dark. However, if you do find yourself in that situation, you should slow down your pace as debris on the water could easily damage your boat. It’s also good so as to avoid being fooled by the reflection of lights on the water.

You should also know all the lights of boats by heart. The front left light is red, while the front right one is green. The elevated backlight is white. Knowing the lights makes it easier to recognize the orientation of another vessel on the water and cross it in the appropriate manner.

fishing boat at night
Fishing boat at night

Passing a Fishing Boat at Close Quarters

When you and the fishing boat are on a tight waterway, the chances of a collision are very high, which means you need to be even more careful.

Steer to the right if you meet a fishing boat for safety, just as you do on the road. If the width is too tight for a simultaneous passing, then the larger vessel should pass first, and make sure you have a very firm grip on your steering boat.

Passing a Sailboat

Sailboats usually have right of way over powered vessels to their limited maneuverability relative to the other vessels (though they are lower in priority than fishing vessels). That said, a powered sailboat is obviously an exception to this rule.

Also, if a sailboat meets a larger vessel on a tight water channel, the larger vessel will have right of way. The same applies if a sailboat is overtaking a powerboat: the powerboat has right of way.

An anchored fishing boat has right of way over a sailboat. You should maintain a wide berth from them as their lines may extend very far from the vessel. The last thing you want is one of those lines wrapped around your propeller. 


  • Bow – The top of the water vessel.
  • Give-way vessel – The vessel that is expected to stay out of the way and let an approaching vessel pass so as to avert an accident.
  • Hull –The body of the water vessel.
  • Port – The left side of the water vessel, from the perspective of its occupants.
  • Stand-on vessel – The vessel that keeps its speed and direction as it has the right of way. It is the one to actively overtake the other vessel, making sure to first inform the captain of the give-way vessel that it intends to overtake in order to avoid an accident.
  • Starboard – The right side of the water vessel, from the perspective of its occupants.
  • Stern – The rear end of the water vessel.


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