Why Do Boats Blow Their Horns? 8 Signals Explained (Examples)

In Boating by Shelby Sullivan

Both commercial and recreational watercraft use horns and sound signals to indicate their intentions to other boaters.

Sound signals are used in place of other signals that you might see in other vehicles, such as turn signal lights or other visual indications.

Utilizing the proper sound signals are a part of the navigational rules that all boaters need to know.

If you are going to operate a boat, you should learn how to properly utilize and understand boating horn signals.

Have you ever been boating recreationally and another ship honks their horn at you?

This might at first seem like a friendly greeting, but it most likely means that the other vessel is trying to communicate to you and tell you something.

8 Sound Signals Everyone Should Know

When navigating in the water, especially in crowded conditions, using your sound signals can help to announce your intentions to other boaters.

3 Sound Signals that Indicate Direction:

  1. A Short Blast
    This horn signal indicates the plan to pass on your port side (this requires a turn to the right).
  2. Two Short Blasts
    This horn signal indicates the plan to pass on your starboard side (this requires a turn to the left).
  3. Three Short Blasts
    This signal indicates that you are backing up.

2 Sound Signals that Indicate Location:

  1. One Long Blast
    This boat horn signal is sometimes called the “blind bend signal”. It can be used to indicate you are approaching a bend in a river where oncoming traffic might not see you.
    It can also mean you are leaving your dock or slip.

    1. You can combine 1 long blast followed by 3 short blasts to indicated backing out of your dock or slip.
    2. You can also use 1 long blast in intervals less than two minutes to indicate in blind areas or fog, that you are a power vessel.
  2. One Long Blast and Two Short Blasts
    This boat signal indicated in blind areas or fog, that your vessel is a sailing vessel.

2 Sound Signals to Use in the Channel

  1. Two Long Blasts and One Short Blast
    This signal indicates you plan to overtake the boat ahead of you on your port side (this requires a turn to the right).
  2. Two Long Blasts and 2 Short Blasts
    This signal indicates that you plan to overtake the boat ahead of you on your starboard side (this requires a turn to the left).

A Sound Signal that Indicates Danger

5 Short Blasts
This horn signal indicates danger and can be used to communicate potential collision with another vessel.

It can also be used while approaching a vessel that is oncoming that you do not understand their intentions or are otherwise confused by their actions.

In a channel where travel is often faster, communication is even more important. The signals in the channel follow a similar system as the above direction signals but with 2 preceding warning signals.

Boat Horn Signal Basics

To properly use and understand sound signals you will need to understand the basics.

Sound signals for boats need to be loud and able to be heard up to a half of a nautical mile away. Sound signals include both short and long blasts:

  • Short blasts would be a sound that lasts 1 second.
  • Long blasts should last between 4-6 seconds so other boaters can be confident in the difference between your short and long blasts.

Sound signals can be used to communicate a change in direction, passing other boaters, an indication of location, or alerting someone to danger.

Sound signals can only be used in conditions with good visibility and should not be used in high fog. Only emergency fog signals should be used in scenarios with low visibility.

Port vs. Starboard

One thing that will help any boat operator or passenger is to know the difference between port and starboard. To correctly identify to port and starboard side, you will need to be looking towards the front of the boat.

  • The port side is the left side of the boat if you are looking towards the bow.
  • The starboard side is the right side of the boat if you are looking towards the bow.

Knowing the difference between port and starboard is important. This is because they are fixed directions on your boat and never change, while directions like “right” and “left” can change depending on the direction you are facing.

If everyone knows the difference between port and starboard it can minimize confusion that can be brought on by using “right” and “left”.

Starboard stems from old English words meaning “steer” and “the side of a boat” because most rowers were right-handed.

Port side was named for the side that faced the port and allowed for boarding.

5 Basic Navigation Rules Everyone Should Know:

Even though boating can be a fun, family-friendly activity, it can also be stressful and intimidating if you don’t know the proper navigation rules.

It can be even more stressful when waterways are crowded and busy.

As a boat operator, it is your job to ensure the safety of you and your passengers as well as being respectful and cautious of fellow boaters.

Below are some basics you should know that, when paired with the use of sound signals, can help you and your passengers enjoy a safe boating experience.

Some basic safety tips that everyone should know include:

  1. Do not go too fast.
    Accidents can be prevented by using safe speeds and only going fast when the conditions allow for it and you have enough space to slow down if needed.
  2. Be careful.
    Not every boater knows the basic navigation rules so you should not count on everyone following them. If other boaters seem to be exhibiting unsafe behavior it is best to keep your distance.
  3. Be respectful.
    Other boaters may have some things going on that you cannot see. Make sure when interacting with other vessels you are respectful of them. If you have the right of way but it makes sense for them to go, you should give them right of way. Especially if this is a safer option.
  4. Avoid government crafts and restricted areas.
    Government vessels should be given the right of way whenever possible and you should make sure you are giving them the proper space.
  5. Know the basic navigation rules and how to determine the right of way.

Some basic navigation and right of way rules include:

When approaching a non-power vessel:

  • When a sailboat is using their sails for power, they have the right of way.
  • If they are using their small power motor, they should be treated as a power vehicle.

When approaching a power vessel:

  • If the boat is approaching from the port side, you have the right of way.
  • If the boat is approaching from the starboard side, they have the right of way.
  • If the boat is approaching from behind you will have right of way even if they are a non-power vessel.
  • If you approach a boat head on you should pass each other port side to port side.

How You Should Respond to Sound Signals

Another thing that you need to know while utilizing sound signals is that a mimicked signal usually signifies agreement.

For example, if another boater uses 1 short blast to indicate that they are passing on their port side, you would respond with your own single short blast to indicate that you understand and agree.

This communication will help you and the other boater to know that you both understand what is going on and that you are agreeing to the indicated maneuver.

If you do not agree with the other boater’s proposed maneuver you can signal this with 5 short blasts. This indicated to them that you do not agree or understand their proposed maneuver.

The Importance of Safety Sound Signals

You might not think these signals are important to know. Perhaps you have been boating for years without using them. But they are very important.

Most boating accidents are caused by user error and can be avoided with proper knowledge and training.

Over 80% of boating accidents are caused by people who have not had the proper boaters training course. This is because not all states require everyone to have a “boater’s license” or Boater Education Card.

As a result of this lack of proper education and training, there are a lot of people out on the water who never learned how to properly utilize these signals or the navigation rules.

It is important that you know these rules so that you properly execute right of way as well as safely navigate around other vessels.

However, despite your proper utilization of navigation rules and proper sound signals, you will still want to be careful and cautious around your fellow boaters. Those who do not know the rules will likely not utilize them.

Never assume that just because you have the right of way or are otherwise properly communicating, that other people will understand you or will follow the right of way rules.