This Guide, is a summary of the most applicable boating issues in multiple states, it cannot, of course, answer every conceivable question that may arise, but it provides answers to some of the more frequent inquiries. Vessels operating on waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States are subject to Federal Boating laws as well as State laws.
- Classes of Vessels
- Personal Flotation Devices (PFD)
- Recreational Vessels
- Commercial Vessels
- Types of Personal Flotation Devices
- Fire Extinguishers
- Sound-producing Devices
- Flame Arrestors
- Exhaust Mufflers
- Navigation Lights
- Vessels Less Than 12 Meters (39.4 ft.) In Length
- Vessels 12 Meters but Less than 20 Meters (65.6 ft.) in Length
- Vessel at Anchor
- Row or Paddle Boat and Small Sailboats
- Vessels of 10 Horsepower or Less
- Definition of Underway
- Speed Limits
- Boating and Fishing Access Areas
- Reckless Operation
- Alcohol and Drugs
- Law Enforcement Vessels
- Boat Races and Regattas
- Minimum Age To Operate
- Personal Flotation Devices and Safety Equipment
- Towing Skiers
- Reckless Operation
- Other Operating Restrictions
- Renting Personal Watercraft
- Water Skiing Signals
- Skin and Scuba Divers
- Navigational Aids
- Regulatory Markers
- Restricted Maneuverability
- Speed and Control
- Danger Areas
- Access Areas
DISPLAY OF NUMBER AND DECAL
Affixing Registration Numbers:
Registration numbers must be legible by complying with the below instructions:
• Must be painted or permanently affixed on the forward half of both sides and no other number may be displayed on either side of the bow.
• Must be at least three inch block lettering and may be of any solid color so as to contrast with the bow of the vessel.
• The number must read from left to right as it appears on the registration card and the letters must be separated from the numerals by hyphens or by equivalent spaces, as shown in the diagram below.
Affixing Vessel Decals: Decals must be displayed on the starboard and port side bow within 6 inches of your registration number.
U.S. Coast Guard Documented Vessels must display the decals on the forward half of the starboard and port side bow.
Remove old validation decals. Apply decals at temperature above 40 degrees Fahrenheit to vessel surface that is clean, dry, and free of dust, grease, wax or other foreign matter. Remove decals from lining paper by lifting at the corner and pulling up. Place in position and press firmly to surface.
When a vessel, legally numbered in one state, is moved to a new state of principal use, its number will be valid for a period of at least 60 days. A vessel which is lawfully numbered in another state and which is brought into and kept in the new State may be used on the waters of this state during the 90 day period immediately ensuing its introduction without any additional registration provided the certificate of number remains current during such period. Continued use of the vessel after this period is unlawful unless and until the vessel has been registered with the New State.
BOATING SAFETY EDUCATION REQUIREMENT
Vessel operators born on or after January 1, 1988, in most states must have successfully completed a Boating Safety Education course to operate a vessel with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater on public waters. Boating Safety Education courses are offered with State Agencies as well as the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the U.S. Power Squadron and Internet providers also offer approved courses that can include a fee. It is important to note the course must be approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) to be accepted.
In lieu of a NASBLA approved boating safety certificate, a vessel operator shall be considered in compliance with the requirements of boating safety education if they have one of the following items:
• A state-approved nonrenewable temporary operator’s certificate to operate a vessel for 90 days that was issued with the certificate of number for the vessel, if the boat was new or was sold with a transfer of ownership.
• A rental or lease agreement from a vessel rental or leasing business that lists the person as the authorized operator of the vessel.
For the purpose of equipment requirements, vessels are divided into four classes, according to length. The length of a vessel is the distance from stem to stern measured over the deck, excluding sheer.
- Class A – Less than 16 feet
- Class 1 – 16 feet to less than 26 feet
- Class 2 – 26 feet to less than 40 feet
- Class 3 – 40 feet and over
Personal Flotation Devices (PFD)
Personal Flotation Devices must be Coast Guard approved and used for activities in accordance with the requirements on the approval label. The number required on a vessel depends on the length of the vessel and whether the vessel is used for recreational or commercial purposes.
1. All recreational vessels must have one Coast Guard approved wearable PFD of a suitable size for each person aboard and each skier being towed.
• Sailboards, racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes and racing kayaks are exempted from the requirements for carriage of any PFD.
2. All recreational vessels sixteen (16) feet in length and over must have one Coast Guard approved wearable PFD of suitable size for each person aboard and each skier being towed, and in addition, one Coast Guard approved throwable PFD.
• Canoes and kayaks 16 feet in length and over are exempted from the requirements for carriage of the additional Coast Guard approved throwable PFD.
3. No person may operate a recreational vessel unless each child under 13 years old on board is wearing a Coast Guard approved wearable PFD unless:
• Each child not wearing such a PFD is below decks or in an enclosed cabin.
• The vessel is not underway. (Vessels that are anchored or tied to shore are not underway.) This law does not apply to commercial vessels.
1. Each commercial vessel not carrying passengers for hire less than forty (40) feet in length must have at least one Coast Guard approved wearable PFD of a suitable size for each person on board.
2. Each commercial vessel forty (40) feet in length or longer not carrying passengers for hire must have at least one Coast Guard approved off-shore PFD of a suitable size for each person on board.
3. Each commercial vessel twenty-six (26) feet in length or longer must have at least one Coast Guard approved throwable PFD on board.
TYPES OF PERSONAL FLOTATION DEVICES
An off-shore PFD is an approved device designed to turn an unconscious person in the water from a face downward position to a vertical or slightly backward position, and to have more than 20 pounds of buoyancy.
A near-shore PFD is an approved device designed to turn an unconscious person in the water from a face downward position to a vertical or slightly backward position, and to have more than 15.5 pounds of buoyancy.
Flotation aids are an approved device designed to have more than 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. While this PFD has the same buoyancy as the near-shore PFD, it has less turning ability. It does, however, allow greater wearing comfort and is particularly useful when water skiing, sailing, hunting, or engaged in other water sports.
A throwable PFD is an approved device designed to be thrown to a person in the water. It is not designed to be worn. It is designed to have at least 16.5 pounds of buoyancy. The most common throwable PFD is a buoyant cushion. A ring buoy is also a throwable PFD.
All PFDs must be U.S. Coast Guard approved, used in accordance with requirements on label, in good and serviceable condition, readily accessible, and of appropriate size for the wearer. Throwable PFDs must be U.S. Coast Guard approved, in good and serviceable condition, and immediately available.
A Special use PFD must be Coast Guard approved. It is a restricted device that is acceptable only when the wearer is engaged in the activity for which the device is intended. Some restricted PFDs must be worn to be acceptable. Always check the label of a restricted PFD; the label will show the activity for which the PFD is approved and will list all other restrictions.
All Marine Type USCG fire extinguishers must be readily accessible and in good and serviceable condition. Good and serviceable working condition means:
(i) If the extinguisher has a pressure gauge reading or indicator it must be in the operable range or position;
(ii) The lock pin is firmly in place;
(iii) The discharge nozzle is clean and free of obstruction; and
(iv) The extinguisher does not show visible signs of significant corrosion or damage.
Disposable fire extinguisher shall not be more than 12 years old from date stamp on bottle. Must be removed from service on 31 December of the 12th year (effective 4/1/22).
A vessel of Classes A and 1 (less than 26 feet) must carry at least one Coast Guard approved “B-1“ type fire extinguisher unless (a) it has an approved built-in fire extinguishing system in the engine compartment, or (b) it is an outboard vessel of open construction and does not carry paying passengers.
For the purpose of determining if an outboard vessel is of closed construction, it is considered to be of closed construction if it has one or more of the following features:
1. Closed compartment under seats or elsewhere wherein portable fuel tanks may be stored.
2. Double bottoms not sealed to the hull or which are not completely filled with flotation material.
3. Closed living spaces.
4. Closed stowage compartments in which combustible or flammable materials are stored.
5. Permanently mounted fuel tank.
The following construction features do not of themselves require that a fire extinguisher be carried:
1. Bait wells.
2. Glove or map compartments.
3. Buoyant flotation materials.
4. Open slatted flooring.
5. Ice chests.
Class 2 vessels must carry one type “B-II“ or two type “B-1“ extinguishers, unless equipped with an approved built-in extinguishing system, in which case one type “B-1“ extinguisher will suffice.
Class 3 vessels must carry at least three “B-1“ extinguishers or one type “B-1“ and one type “B-II“ extinguishers. If equipped with an approved built-in extinguishing system, two type “B-1“ or one type “B-II“ extinguishers will suffice.
|FIRE EXTINGUISHER REQUIREMENTS|
|Length Class||Without Fixed System||With Fixed System*|
|Less than 16 ft (Class A)||1 B-I||None|
|16 ft. to less than 26 ft (Class 1)||1 B-I||None|
|26 ft. to less than 40 ft (Class 2)||2 B-I or 1 B-II||1 B-I|
|40 ft. to less than 65 ft (Class 3)||3 B-I or 1 B-II and 1 B-I||2 B-I or 1 B-II|
|* refers to a permanently installed fire extinguisher system|
Devices Sound-producing devices include horns or whistles and bells. Vessels less than 12 meters (39.4 feet) in length, while not required to have a horn or whistles and bells, shall be provided with some means of making an efficient sound signal.
A vessel that is 12 meters, but less than 20 meters (65.6 feet) must carry a horn or whistle that can be heard for one-half mile. Vessel operators may substitute mechanical or electronic sound signal appliance for required sound producing devices if such appliances have similar sound characteristics, provided that manual sounding of the required signals must be possible.
The carburetors on inboard gasoline engines must be equipped with Coast Guard approved backfire flame arrestors or an arrangement of the carburetor or engine air induction system that will disperse any flames caused by engine backfire. The flames must be dispersed to the atmosphere outside the vessel in such a manner that the flames will not endanger the vessel, persons on board, or nearby vessels and structures. All attachments shall be of metallic construction with flame tight connections and firmly secured to withstand vibration, shock, and engine backfire.
Inboard vessels using gasoline or fuel with a flash point of less than 110 degrees Fahrenheit and outboard vessels which have enclosed bilges or fuel tank compartments or other compartments into which explosive or flammable gases may flow and be trapped must have each engine and fuel tank compartment equipped with two or more cowled ventilators arranged and ducted for efficiently evacuating such vapors. The ventilation requirement is in addition to, and not in lieu of, the fire extinguisher requirements.
Vessel engines with open-air exhausts and the capacity to operate at more than 4000 RPM must have effective muffling equipment installed on each exhaust manifold stack. Licensed commercial fishing vessels are exempt.
INLAND LIGHTING RULES NAVIGATION LIGHTS
Vessels operating at night are required to display navigation lights between sunset and sunrise.
Vessels Less Than 12 Meters (39.4 ft.) In Length
Vessels or sailboats using power: the lighting arrangement in figure 1, 2 or 3 may be used.
Sailboats using sail alone: the lighting arrangements in figure 4, 5 or 6 may be used.
The white masthead light must be at least 1 meter (3.3 ft.) higher than the colored sidelights.
Vessels 12 Meters but Less than 20 Meters (65.6 ft.) in Length
Vessels or sailboats using power: the lighting arrangement in figure 1 or 2 may be used. The lighting arrangement in figure 3 may be used if the vessel was constructed before December 24, 1980.
Sailboats using sail alone: the lighting arrangements in figure 4, 5 or 6 may be used.
The white masthead light must be at least 2.5 meters (8.2 ft.) higher than the colored sidelights.
Vessel at Anchor
A vessel less than 50 meters (165 ft.) in length should display an all-round white light visible for two miles exhibited where it can best be seen. However, vessels less than 7 meters (23 ft.) in length are not required to display anchor lights unless anchored in or near a narrow channel, fairway or anchorage or where other vessels normally navigate.
1. Row or Paddle Boat and Small Sailboats:
A vessel under oars, and sailboats less than 7 meters (23 feet) in length may display those lights prescribed for a sailing vessel, but if they do not, they shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern shining a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.
2. Vessels of 10 Horsepower or Less:
On waters of the State not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, vessels propelled by machinery of 10 horsepower or less, in lieu of the foregoing requirements, may carry from one-half hour after sunset to one-half before sunrise a white light in the stern or have on board a hand flashlight in good working condition which shall be ready at hand and shall be temporarily displayed in sufficient time to prevent collision. On waters of the State that are subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, this exception, though permissible under State law, is not sanctioned by any Federal law or regulation.
OPERATION OF VESSELS
Definition of Underway – “Underway” means a vessel that is not at anchor, or made fast to the shore, or aground.
Although local conditions may warrant the imposition of definite limitations on the speed of vessels, the only general speed limitation is that which is implied in safe vessel operation under the existing circumstances. Speed which is excessive under the circumstances, and which endangers persons or property, is one form of reckless operation, which is prohibited by State boating laws.
Boating and Fishing Access Areas
Vessels entering, leaving or passing within 50 yards of a state-owned or controlled boating and fishing access area must do so at “no-wake“ speed.
No person shall operate any motorboat or vessel, or manipulate any water skis, surfboard, or similar device in a reckless or negligent manner so as to endanger the life, limb or property of any person.
Alcohol and Drugs
No person shall operate any motorboat or vessel, or manipulate any water skis, surfboard, or similar device while under the influence of an impairing substance, nor operate any motor vessel after consuming alcohol sufficient to cause a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or greater.
Law Enforcement Vessels
Vessels operated on the waters of a State shall slow to a no-wake speed when passing within 100 feet of a law enforcement vessel that is displaying a flashing blue light unless the vessel is in a narrow channel. Vessels operated on the waters of this State in a narrow channel shall slow to a no-wake speed when passing within 50 feet of a law enforcement vessel that is displaying a flashing blue light.
Boat Races and Regattas
Regattas, tournaments and other marine exhibitions may be held on navigable waters of the State when approved in advance by the United States Coast Guard. Application must be made to the Coast Guard District Commander at least 30 days prior to the proposed event.
Personal Watercraft (PWC) are defined by law as “A small vessel which uses an outboard motor or propeller- driven motor, or an inboard motor powering a water jet pump, as its primary source of motive power and which is designed to be operated by a person sitting, standing, or kneeling on, or being towed behind the vessel, rather than in the conventional manner of sitting or standing inside the vessel.“ PWCs are commonly known by their manufacturer names such as “Jet Skis” and “Wave Runners.“
It is unlawful to operate a personal watercraft (PWC) on the waters of the State between sunset and sunrise.
Minimum Age To Operate:
No person under 14 years of age may operate a personal watercraft (PWC). A person at least 14 years of age but less than 16 years of age may operate a PWC if:
1. The person is accompanied by a person at least 18 years of age who occupies the PWC; or
2. The person possesses ID proof of age and a boating safety certification or card indicating satisfactory completion of a National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) approved boating safety education course.
ID and boating safety certification must be produced upon request of an officer. It is unlawful for the owner of a PWC or for a person who has temporary or permanent responsibility for a person under 16 to allow that person to operate a PWC except as provided in 1 and 2 above.
Personal Flotation Devices and Safety Equipment
PWCs are subject to the same safety equipment requirements as other vessels. In addition to those requirements:
1. No person shall operate or allow operation of a PWC unless each person riding or being towed is wearing a Coast Guard approved personal flotation device. (Inflatable PFDs do not satisfy this requirement).
2. If the PWC is equipped by the manufacturer with a lanyard type cut-off switch, it must be attached to the person operating. 1
No person shall operate a PWC towing another person on water skis or other devices unless the PWC has on board, in addition to the operator, an observer who shall monitor the person(s) being towed, or the PWC is equipped with a rearview mirror; and the total number of persons operating, observing, and being towed does not exceed the number of passengers identified by the manufacturer as the maximum safe load for the vessel.
Personal Watercraft must be operated in a reasonable and prudent manner. Maneuvers that endanger life, limb, or property shall constitute reckless operation of a vessel and include:
1. Unreasonably or unnecessarily weaving through congested vessel traffic.
2. Jumping the wake of another vessel within 100 feet of such other vessel or when visibility around such other vessel is obstructed.
3. Intentionally approaching another vessel in order to swerve at the last possible moment to avoid collision.
4. Operating contrary to the “rules of the road“ or following too closely to another vessel, including a PWC. “Following too closely,“ is defined by law as proceeding in the same direction of another vessel and operating at a speed in excess of 10mph when approaching within 100 feet to the rear or 50 feet to the side of another vessel that is underway unless that vessel is operating in a narrow channel, in which case a PWC may operate at the speed and flow of other vessel traffic. A narrow channel is defined as a segment of the waters of the State that is 300 feet or less in width.
Other Operating Restrictions
No person shall operate a personal watercraft on the waters of this State at greater than no-wake speed within 100 feet of an anchored or moored vessel, a dock, pier, swim float, marked swimming area, swimmers, surfers, persons engaged in angling, or any manually operated propelled vessel (except within 50 feet in a narrow channel).
Renting Personal Watercraft
Each PWC that is rented to the public is required to have liability insurance in the amount of $300,000.
The boating law contains several provisions relating to the towing of persons on water skis, surfboards and other similar devices, and the manipulation of such devices by the persons being towed. It prohibits the operation or manipulation of such devices:
1. In a reckless or dangerous manner;
2. While under the influence of an impairing substance;
3. Where the direction or location of the device may be manipulated or controlled from the vessel so as to cause the person being towed to collide with any object or person;
4. Between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise;
5. At any other time, unless:
(a) the vessel is equipped with a rear vision mirror, or
(b) there is an observer in the vessel in addition to the operator, or
(c) the person being towed wears a life preserver. Prohibitions 4 and 5 do not apply to professional skiing exhibitions or authorized regattas.
Water Skiing Signals
- SPEED O.K.
- RIGHT TURN
- PICK ME UP or FALLEN SKIER—WATCH OUT
- LEFT TURN
- BACK TO DROP-OFF AREA
- CUT MOTOR STOP
- SKIER O.K. AFTER FALL
Skin and Scuba Divers
Persons engaged in, or assisting, skin or scuba diving in waters open to boating must display the diver’s flag at the place of diving. They may not display the flag when not engaged in diving or at any location where it will unreasonably obstruct navigation. Vessels may not approach closer than 50 feet to any structure which a diver’s flag is displayed, except when it is located so as to constitute an unreasonable obstruction to navigation.
The law imposes certain specific duties on the operator of any vessel, whether it is numbered or unnumbered, which is involved in a collision, accident or any other casualty:
1. Operator is required to stop and render such assistance to other persons affected by the accident as may be practical and necessary in order to save them or minimize any danger resulting from the accident.
2. Operator is required to give their name, address and the number of their vessel (if it is numbered), in writing, to any person injured and to the owner of any property damaged in the collision or accident.
3. Operator is required to make immediate notification to the Wildlife Resources Commission, by the quickest means available, when an accident occurs that involves a vessel or its equipment resulting in a death or disappearance of a person from a vessel. The notification should consist of:
- a) The date, time and exact location of the occurrence;
- b) The name of each person who died or disappeared;
- c) The number and name of the vessel; and
- d) The names and addresses of the owner and operator.
When the operator of a vessel cannot give the notice required above, each person on board the vessel shall notify the Wildlife Resources Commission or determine that the notice has been given.
4. Operator will be required to make a written report of the accident on a form provided by the Wildlife Resources Commission if the accident results in any one or more of the following:
- a) Loss of life;
- b) A person is injured and requires medical treatment beyond first aid;
- c) Actual physical damage to property (including vessels) in excess of $2,000.00; d) A person disappears from the vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury.
Reports in death, disappearance and injury cases must be submitted within 48 hours; reports in other cases are required within 10 days. When the operator of a vessel cannot submit the accident report, the owner shall submit the report.
It is a misdemeanor to place, throw, deposit or discharge into the inland public waters of this State any litter, raw sewage, bottles, cans, papers, or other liquid or solid materials which render the waters unsightly, noxious, or otherwise unwholesome so as to be detrimental to the public health or welfare or to the enjoyment and safety of the water for recreational purposes.
UNIFORM WATERWAY MARKERS
The Uniform Waterway Marking System (United States Aids to Navigation) has been adopted for use on the public waters of the States.
The system is designed to facilitate water traffic by the use of standardized signs and markers in the same way that motor traffic is regulated on the nation’s highways. It is incumbent on all boaters to familiarize themselves with the system and the meaning of the various signs and markers. 17
ALL-RED BUOY indicates vessels should pass between it and its companion, an all green buoy. Keep red buoy on starboard (right) side when proceeding up stream or when entering a channel from the main body of water. Red buoys are used opposite, or in plain sight of, an all-green buoy to mark the edge of a well-defined channel. Numbers, when used, will be white and even. May have conical top. Also, called a nun buoy.
ALL-GREEN BUOY indicates vessels should pass between it and its companion, an all-red buoy. Keep green buoy on port (left) side when proceeding upstream, or when entering a channel from the main body of water.
DIAMOND SHAPE WITH CROSS means Boats Keep Out.
DIAMOND SHAPE warns of Danger. Wording appearing in diamond includes ROCK, DAM, SNAG, DREDGE, WING-DAM, FERRY CABLE, MARINE CONSTRUCTION, WRECK, etc.
CIRCLE means area controlled “as indicated“. Wording that may appear in circle includes SLOW-NO WAKE, NO SKI, NO SWIM, NO SCUBA, NO PROP BOATS, SKI ONLY, FISHING ONLY, SKIN DIVING ONLY, etc.
RECTANGLE gives names, distances, arrows indicating directions, availability of gas, oil, groceries, marine repairs, etc.
MOORING BUOY has no navigational or regulatory significance. Blue band is half way between top and water line. Used as an anchoring aid. May bear ownership identification. Lighting is normally optional, but lighting may be required depending upon location in waterway.
DIVER’S FLAG indicates presence of a diver. To be flown from vessel or float. Flag has been adopted by Under Water Society of America. Boaters are warned to keep away from flag area to avoid submerged divers. The diver’s flag is not a part of the Uniform Waterway Marking System (United States Aids to Navigation) but should be used by divers and recognized by boaters.
RULES OF THE ROAD
Safe navigation is very largely a matter of boating courtesy, or the observation of the “golden rule“ in marine traffic. Certain navigational “rules of the road“ should be understood and adhered to by those who share the use of our public waters. Observance of the “rules of the road“ is required by each State law, and failure to observe them is imprudent and could constitute reckless and negligent operation.
When two vessels approach each other from opposite directions “heads on“, each must alter course to the right to avoid collision. If the two vessels are far enough to the left of each other so that no change in direction is needed for safe passage, both will maintain their course and speed to pass clear.
When two vessels approach each other at an angle, the one on the right has the right-of-way and the other must stay clear.
Sailboats not under power and vessels propelled by oars or paddles have the right-of-way over motorboats except in an overtaking situation where the vessel being overtaken always has the right-of-way. Small pleasure craft must yield to large commercial vessels in narrow channels.
When one vessel overtakes another going in the same direction, the craft being overtaken must maintain course and speed, and the passing vessel must keep a sufficient distance to avoid collision or endangering the other craft from its wake.
Speed and Control
All vessels must be operated at reasonable speeds for given situations and must be under the complete control of the operator at all times.
Vessels passing close to swimming areas, moored vessels, or vessels engaged in fishing, servicing buoys or markings, or similar activities, must reduce their speed so as to prevent their wash or wake from causing damage or danger to swimmers or other occupants of the area or other vessels.
Vessels must not intentionally obstruct or interfere with the take off or landing of aircraft, and must stay clear of taxiing aircraft at all times.
Operators of vessels must comply with the requirements for the type and use of lights when underway from sunset to sunrise.
CARRYING PASSENGERS FOR HIRE
A captain’s license is required if carrying passengers for hire on navigable waters. Before carrying passengers for hire, contact the Coast Guard Marine Sector for information and regulations.
LOCAL REGULATIONS AND RESTRICTIONS
Some counties have more restrictive local laws or ordinances pertaining to vessel operation. Information regarding these restrictions may be obtained from local governments, sheriffs departments, or marine commissions. In most cases Wildlife Commission is authorized to make uniform safety rules and regulations applicable to all public waters of the State.
For information regarding Federal boating requirements, such as visual distress signals and marine sanitation devices contact: Fifth Coast Guard District Federal Building 431 Crawford Street Portsmouth, Virginia 23705 (757) 398-6390