What the Different Boat Horns Mean on a Cruise Ship

You probably use your car horn occasionally to send a message to other drivers, whether it’s positive or negative. Interestingly, captains also use their boat horns to communicate.

Most people won’t think it’s much more than a captain tooting his horn. However, knowing their meanings can allow you to understand what they’re trying to say.

Today, we’ll walk you through some of the most common boat horns and what they mean.

Let’s get started!

What Is a Boat Horn?

A boat horn is a marine device that creates a loud signal from a watercraft. They’re typically used to help increase safety and effective communication. By design, they’re able to carry sound over long distances and in a variety of conditions.

Typically, captains will sound boat horns to alert nearby vessels, port facilities, and other waterborne traffic regarding their intentions. They may be preparing to make a maneuver, warn others of their presence, or communicate with shore authorities.

It’s worth noting that these horns can be very loud. They are very low, bassy noises because lower register noises carry better over long distances.

The goal for these devices is so everyone can hear them clearly and know a ship or other vessel is present. The bigger the ship, the louder the horn will likely be.

A white boat horn.

What Are the Rules for Boat Horns?

Boats under 39’4″ must have a device capable of producing an audible signal. These can be bells, whistles, or an air horn. When needed, a boat captain could even use a set of pots and pans. All they need to do is capture the attention of others navigating the waters.

For vessels over 39’4″ and under 65’6″, the boat must have a whistle and bell. However, you can’t just pick any whistle and bell. The bell must have a mouth with a diameter of at least 7.87 inches.

For ships, they must use a prolonged fog horn blast every two minutes when navigating in restricted visibility. Between blasts, they must listen for the sounds of other vessels and change their course accordingly.

What the Different Boat Horns Mean on a Cruise Ship

Want to know what the different boat horns mean on a cruise ship? Let’s look at some of the most common horns you’ll hear while sailing.

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One Short Blast

If you hear one short boat horn blast from your cruise ship, it means the captain is changing their course to starboard. It’s the equivalent of a driver turning on their right turn signal.

This can help alert other vessels that the ship will be moving in that direction. This can help avoid collisions and different dangerous situations.

A cruise ship leaving port and heading into the ocean.

Two Short Blasts

On the other hand, two short blasts from a cruise ship indicate that the vessel is moving towards the port side. Again, this is the equivalent of using the left turn signal while driving.

It helps share their intent to move towards the left so other vessels can steer clear. This is primarily useful when maneuvering in low-visibility situations or with the potential for collisions.

Three Short Blasts

A captain will sound three short boat horn blasts before operating in astern propulsion. In driving terms, they’ve shifted into reverse and will move backward.

This is especially important when maneuvering out of ports and other tight situations. Other vessels can know the captain’s intent and what they’re planning to do.

Five or More Short Blasts

If you hear five or more short blasts from your ship, it means there’s danger. The captain could be trying to signal to other vessels that there’s a dangerous situation that they should avoid.

This signal can also mean that a captain needs clarification on a boater’s intentions. It alerts them that they must communicate clearly so other vessels can respond accordingly.

Up close shot of shiny boat horns.

Prolonged Blast

Prolonged boat horn blasts have a variety of meanings and depend on the situation. To understand the purpose, it’s essential to consider the context. A cruise ship will sound a prolonged blast when it departs a port or dock. This gives other vessels a heads-up that they’re about to move.

Additionally, you could hear this if two ships are approaching each other and there’s a potential for collision. The captain will use a prolonged blast to communicate with the other vessel that they’re changing course to the starboard side.

The other ship will return the favor and adjust its approach accordingly. If all goes as planned, the vessels will safely pass each other on their left.

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Know the Boat Horns on a Cruise Ship

Captains typically only toot their horns with a purpose. Now you know what the crew is saying when they sound their horn. Use your knowledge to impress your fellow passengers on your next cruise. You’ll be able to educate others on the horn’s meanings and why it’s necessary.

Check the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea if you hear a boat horn you don’t recognize. Rules 30, 33, 34, 35, 36, and 37 address sound and light signals within these regulations. You can learn more than you ever imagined about boat horns.

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