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It seems amazing to us that while out in a wide expanse of water, without any other vessels or hazards nearby, large wake-inducing powerboats feel the need to pass us within 20 feet or so. Why? I can only assume that, with nothing else to look at on the water, they are just curious about what our boat is like.

Such is not the case on the ICW though, where out of necessity, we are routinely passed at close range by upwards of a dozen or more vessels in a typical day’s travels. Powerboats, who can easily cruise at much faster speeds than sailboats, are forced to play leapfrog as they move up and down the waterway. If they blow by other vessels at their normal cruising speed though, the wake that they throw can often lead to damage and in some rare cases, even injury. Which brings us to the “slow pass.”

A frequent sight on the ICW. Reminds me of being chased in a James Bond movie.

Captains of vessels overtaking another will frequently radio ahead to the slower boat, making their intention to pass known and often requesting that the lead vessel slow down. If they do so, the faster boat can then cut their speed way down, minimizing the wake that they leave behind. But what side will they pass on? In many cases it is obvious but you will often hear the Captain of the overtaking vessel say that they’d like to do either a “1 whistle” or a “2 whistle” pass. With it’s roots in sound signals, what they are in effect saying is that they will adjust course to starboard or port respectively. Why not just say that then? Because it doesn’t sound as cool, that’s why! We have, thus far, only once actually experienced a vessel blowing their horn at us to indicate their intentions but at least now we are familiar enough with this to know what the sound signals mean.

Our friend Kirk gave us this sticker. Why would anyone with “high performance” gear require a sticker to show them which side of the boat is starboard and which side is port?

Rather than trying to list all of the sound signals, I copied the following from a recent issue of the Cruising Compass newsletter:

Boat Rat’s Tip of the Week: Remember Your Sound Signals

We were out sailing last weekend when visibility in haze dropped to under half a mile. As it happened, we were in confined waters and crossing a ship channel. Out of the haze we heard two distinct horn blasts from a ship that we could not immediately see. What did that mean? According to the Rules of the Road, here’s what basic horn signals tell you and allow you to tell others out on the water when visibility is poor.

One short blast means that the approaching ship is turning to starboard; if you and the ship are converging head on, you should sound one blast and turn to starboard so the vessels pass port side to port side. If one ship is overtaking another, one blast will indicate that the overtaking ship will be passing on the starboard hand.

Two short blasts means you are turning to port. This can indicate simply that you are following a bend in the channel, that you are avoiding a hazard, or that you are overtaking another vessel and choosing to pass along the port side. Converging vessels should not pass port to port in limited visibility without verbal agreement via VHF radio.

Three short blasts means you are backing down and can mean that you are avoiding a collision, making a tight turn or even setting an anchor.

There is no signal with four even blasts, which helps maintain clarity between three and five – very different signals.

Five short blasts is the danger signal that indicates that an approaching ship has determined that danger lies in its path and is warning all vessels off its bow to keep clear. You will hear this even in broad daylight when ships pass through crowded sailing grounds on their way to port.

In very limited visibility, various vessels are required to sound signals every two minutes or less. For sailboats under sail, the signal is one long followed by two short blasts; for power vessels underway, the signal is one long blast; for power vessels underway but stopped, the signal is two long blasts; for a vessel in tow, the final is one long followed by three short blasts; and, for ships and deep draft vessels the signal is one long followed by two short blasts.


  1. If people ( powerboaters) would just start using them.

  2. Mike is right – 95% of powerboaters are respectful and want to make slow passes. The other 5% cause problems even for us trawlers who go about the same speed as sailboats.

    From a powerboaters perspective though, there’s another equally annoying statistic. We hail every boat that we’re approaching to pass. About 50% of the sailboats do not respond. Either they don’t have a VHF radio on or they’re ignoring it. Switching to whistle signals when there is no VHF response generally creates annoyed glances back with an occasional “thumbs up” except it isn’t the thumb that was being used.

    While there’s no excuse to ever blow past another boat potentially causing damage, it’s equally dangerous to not communicate so a safe, slow pass can be negotiated.

    • I agree Jeffrey. I find it strange that so many people don’t monitor, or don’t respond to the VHF as well. I think many boats have the VHF radio located down below and have no easy access from the helm. That seems like a strange configuration to me.

  3. Lets not forget that a sailboat under power propultion is a power boat and not a sailboat….Even if you are motor sailing with sails up, you are a boat under propultion…Sailors are sometimes just to blame as power boaters….If I am inbound or outbound in a channel and a sailboat (under power) stays right in the middle of the channel, they are just plain ignorant or have their nose up their ass …With that said, a car should always slow down for the turtle crossing the road. As said above…..90% of people are aware of “rules of the road”…..Ultimately, I am responsible for all actions or wakes created by my boat….

  4. Fancy stickers.
    Those are nice stickers and they will remind people that “red is not right”… I guess. But one must keep in mind that those with high performance gear probably got high performance credit cards. So it would be a good idea to keep the name in their face.
    They look a little big to be used as halyard markers.
    None the less, keep hav’n fun and be safe.
    Perhaps, if you have made it to the BVIs by mid Apr, we can hook up for a drink as I hope to make a few day stop there while on delivery to TO.

  5. We installed a little rearview mirror when we were traveling the ICW. It really helped us with the powerboaters since we never got “surprised” when one snuck up at a high rate of speed. Also, sailboaters aren’t the only ones who sometimes travel w/their VHFs off. We had a small percentage who just didn’t respond to any of our hails.

    On the whole though, the ICW had a huge # of people who were just as polite as you could hope. They slowed down for the “turtles” and always gave us a wave and sometimes a little bit of chat when there was a common interest.

    Fair Winds,

  6. Great Anchorage at Mile 651.3 on back river behind Doboy Island lots of swinging room !

  7. A lot of people seem to drive their boats the same way they do their cars. This means that most of them are polite and follow the rules of the road, be it water or dirt. The others, about 5%, are just jerks. This seems to be true of people, no matter how you divy them up. Be it by race, gender, fiances, means of transportation, political leanings, or whatever. About 5% of any group is composed of jerks. Ignore them, enjoy the rest!

  8. When I first started boating, I remembered port and starboard with the little ditty, ‘red left port’. Not sure if that qualifies as a ditty actually. More like a …hmmm. Not sure what it would be called. But it worked for me.

  9. I looked it up. It’s not a ditty – that’s a short song. It’s a mnemonic. I need one to teach me how to pronounce it.

  10. Mike what we have on Close Knit is an external powered speaker horn, that can be used with the Vhf at a flick of a switch, or by itself should you wish to express your thoughts off the VHF. It is loud enough to be heard from quite a distance, & for those who ignore the VHF you can sneek up behind & yell at them, very effective… It was on the boat when we bought it, unfortunately not my idea!!!

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