California Boating Laws – What you need to know

Boating License Requirement and Age and Operator Restrictions 

California law requires a person to be 16 years of age or older and in possession of his/her California Boater Card to legally operate a vessel powered by a motor of 15 hp or more, including personal watercraft (PWCs). 

Exceptions to this law are: 

  • Persons 12 to 15 years of age may operate a vessel powered by a motor of 15 hp or more, including PWCs, if they are supervised on board by a person at least 18 years of age and in possession of his/her California Boater Card. 
  • There is no age restriction for operating a sailboat under 30 ft. long (with wind as the main source of propulsion) or a dinghy used between a moored vessel and shore or between two moored vessels. 

It is illegal to permit a person under the age of 16 to operate a vessel powered by a motor of 15 hp or more, including PWCs, without onboard supervision by a person 18 years of age or older who is in possession of his/her California Boater Card. 

Life jackets are the most important piece of safe boating and watersports equipment. According to the Division of Boating and Waterways, most boating deaths happen when people don’t wear life jackets and drown. Today’s life jackets are colorful, comfortable and easy to wear. 

The Division of Boating and Waterways recommends that boaters always wear a life jacket no matter how well you know how to swim or operate a boat. You never know when an accident might occur. Once in the water, it is very difficult to locate and put on a life jacket while trying to stay afloat. 

California law requires that every child under age 13 must wear a life jacket at all times while on a moving vessel of any length. (There are three exceptions: Children are not required to wear a life jacket when they are wearing a harness on a sailboat, when they are in an enclosed cabin, and when they are on a vessel during an emergency rescue.) 

California Boating laws – rules  

Any person convicted of any moving violation in the Harbors and Navigation Code, the Federal Rules of the Road and regulations adopted by the California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways while operating a vessel must be ordered by the court to complete and pass a boating safety course approved by the California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways. Proof of completion and passage of the course must be submitted to the court within seven months of the time of the conviction. This boating safety course will satisfy court-ordered mandatory boater education required by California law when a boater is convicted of a moving violation. 


Coast Guard or local law enforcement officers patrol the waterways to make your boating experience safe and pleasant. Cooperate with them by following the laws and guidelines. 

Carry the Card: Vessel operators who are required to have a Boater Education Card must carry the card on board the vessel and have it available for inspection by an enforcement officer. 

Penalty: Not carrying your Boater Education Card when one is required can result in a fine. 

Lifejackets and the Law 


  • Everyone on board a personal watercraft (popularly known as “jet skis”) and anyone being towed behind a vessel must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket. 
  • A Coast Guard-approved life jacket must be carried for each person on board. 
  • If stored, these life jackets must be readily available (easy to get to), and you must show passengers the location of life jackets and other safety equipment. 


  • The same requirements as above and 
  • One immediately accessible (easy-to-reach) Type IV device designed for throwing – such as a ring, cushion or horseshoe buoy for each boat. 


  • All Vessels 
    • Whistle or other sound producing device is required on powered vessels, recommended on all others 
    • Other suggested equipment includes a paddle, a 20 foot tow line, and an anchor.
    • Navigational lights during sunset to sunrise or during limited visibility 
  • Powered Vessels 
    • An adequate muffler to meet state noise level requirements 
    • USCG approved fire extinguisher
    • Current vessel registration  
  • Non-Powered Vessels: 
      Canoe, Kayak, Standup Paddle Boards (SUPs) 
    • SUPs are considered vessels and must have a personal floatation device. Leashes are recommended and are your best connection to your floatation. 
    • SUPs are not recommended in high-speed, open water during high vessel traffic. 

General Boating Regulations 

If you own a sailboat over eight feet long or a boat/vessel with a motor (no matter the size, includes Jet Skis), you must register it with DMV in order to legally operate it on California waterways.  

Vessels used in fresh waters are required to display a current Quagga sticker, unless the vessel is used only in marine waters, or exempt by law. 

California Department of Vehicles BOAT & VESSEL OWNERS  

Vessels from out of state must have valid registration in the state of principal use and cannot be remaining in California over 90 consecutive days. 

Keep your Certificate of Ownership in a safe place—this is your evidence of title to the vessel. Certificates issued will also contain the boat’s identifying number (known as the hull identification number), which is the number permanently marked on the transom by the manufacturer or builder, or the number assigned by DMV and marked on the transom by the owner. 

Definition of a Vessel: Any watercraft used or capable of being used as transportation on the water; except a seaplane or a vessel on a fixed track or arm. 

  • Vessel operators must follow all CCR-Title14 and applicable Boating Laws, Lake Perris Posted Orders, Harbors & Navigation Laws and Federal Inland Navigation Rules. 
  • Vessel operators must be 16 years of age (12 yrs. of age when supervised by an adult)
  • Direction of travel is counterclockwise (except vessels under sail, kayak, or canoes).
  • Maximum speed limit on the lake is 35 MPH.
  • 5 mph zones are non-directional. 5 mph zones are from shore line to buoys and on the east end (island side) of the lake, due to hidden hazards and shallow water in that portion of the lake. 
  • 5 mph max speed and running lights are required during restricted visibility, before sunrise, and after dark. 
  • Vessels are not allowed within 50 feet of posted swim areas.
  • Free style/Trick riding is not permitted. This includes but is not limited to: 360’s, 180’s, submarining, jumping boat wakes within 100 feet of a vessel. 
  • All persons, except water-skiers (etc.), must be in the passenger compartment while vessel is under way. 
  • Dogs are not allowed on the beach, in the water or on the island. Dogs are allowed on vessels but not in the water.
  • Shoreline refueling is Prohibited, Refuel in parking lots – Protect our water and our beaches. 
  • ALCOHOL possession and consumption is allowed from your vessel only. You may not bring alcohol on shore in day use areas. Alcohol is also permitted in your registered campsite. 
  • Boating Under the Influence (BUI) will be subject to arrest and booking into County Jail.
  • Boaters are required to know and follow all California State boating laws, even if not listed above.


  • Inflatables are allowed to be towed behind boats 
  •  When a vessel is in a towing operation (skier, wakeboard, inflatable, etc.) the vessel must have an observer, at least 12 years or older, holding an orange flag and in visual contact with the person in tow and in verbal communication with the vessel operator. 
  • Water-skiing, towables (etc.) are allowed only during daylight hours.   


Under California law, every child under 13 years of age on a moving recreational vessel of any length must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket in serviceable condition and of a type and size appropriate for the conditions and the activity. The law does not apply to children under 13 years of age who are: 

  1. on a sailboat and are restrained by a harness tethered to the sailboat; 
  2. in an enclosed cabin;
  3. on a vessel engaged in an emergency rescue situation.

For a boat less than 16 feet long, or a canoe or a kayak of any length, you are required to: 

  • Everyone on board a personal watercraft (popularly known as “jet skis”) and anyone being towed behind a vessel must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket. 
  • A Coast Guard-approved life jacket must be carried for each person on board. If stored, these life jackets must be readily available (easy to get to), and you must show passengers the location of life jackets and other safety equipment.
  • Anyone using an underwater maneuvering device is exempt from wearing a life jacket. An underwater maneuvering device is any towed or self-powered device designed for underwater use that a person can pilot through diving, turning and surfacing moves. 

For a boat 16 feet or longer, you must carry for each passenger: 

  • The same requirements as above and one immediately accessible (easy-to-reach) Type IV device designed for throwing – such as a ring, cushion or horseshoe buoy for each boat. 

What type of like jacked should I wear? 

Unlike the traditional orange horse collar of yesteryears, today’s life jackets are technologically advanced, making them more convenient, less restrictive – and sometimes – even unnoticeable to the boater who is wearing one. An additional advantage to boaters is that life jackets are now custom designed for their specific water activities, i.e. fishing, cruising, water-skiing, etc. 

How to Choose the Right Like Jacket? 

Looking for a life jacket? Today’s jackets come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. No matter which life jacket you choose, be sure it’s right for YOU, your planned activities, and the water conditions you expect to encounter. TRY IT ON:  

  • Check the manufacturer’s ratings for your size and weight. 
  • Make sure the jacket is properly zipped or buckled. 
  • Raise your arms straight up over your head while wearing your life jacket and ask a friend to grasp the tops of the arm openings, gently pulling up. 
  • If there is excess room above the openings and the jacket rides up over your chin or face, it does NOT fit properly. A snug fit in these areas signals a properly fitting life jacket. 


  • It is extremely important that you choose a properly fitting life jacket. 
  • Jackets that are too big will cause the flotation device to push up around your face, which could be dangerous.
  • Jackets that are too small will not be able to keep your body afloat.


  • Make sure your life jacket is U.S. Coast Guard-approved. 
  • Double check that your jacket is appropriate for your favorite boating activities. 
  • Take the time to ensure a proper fit. 
  • Life jackets meant for adults do not work for children. If you are boating with children, make sure they are wearing properly fitted, child-sized life jackets. 

To extend your life jacket’s useful life: 

  • Ensure life jackets are dry before storing them. 
  • Store your life jackets in a dry dark location with ventilation to avoid rot, mold and mildew damage. 
  • Avoid leaving unused life jackets out in the sun. Ultraviolet rays break down the life jacket fibers. 
  • Do not bend or place heavy objects on top of life jackets. 

What type of boats/vessels have to be registered with DMV? 

Any boat or vessel that you can use to transport yourself on water, such as a: 

  • Sail-powered boat/vessel that is over eight feet long. 
  • Vessel/boat with a motor (no matter how big it is). 

If you bought your boat/vessel from an out-of-state seller, or if you recently moved to California, you need to register your boat/vessel with DMV within 120 days of bringing it into the state. 

There are some boats/vessels that do not have to be registered: 

  • Canoes, rowboats, or any boats/vessels that use paddles or oars 
  • Sailboats shorter than eight feet long 
  • Sailboards or parasails 
  • A ship’s lifeboat 
  • Seaplanes on the water 
  • Boats that run on a track, such as amusement park rides 
  • Floating structures that are tied to land and use power, water, and a sewage system on the shore. 

Dinghies must be registered with DMV. 

Houseboats that have a motor must be registered with DMV. 

Commercial boats/vessels that weigh more than five net tons and are longer than 30 feet must be registered (documented) by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

I am only going to use my boat/vessel on a private lake. Do I still have to register it? 

Yes. Any boat/vessel that travels or is moored in California waterways, including private lakes, must be registered with DMV. 

What is the difference between a documented boat/vessel and an undocumented boat/vessel? 

  • documented boat/vessel is registered with the U.S. Coast Guard and has a marine certificate. These boats/vessels do not have to be registered with DMV. 
  • An undocumented boat/vessel is registered with DMV and does not have a marine certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard. 

If you buy a new boat/vessel, it is automatically considered undocumented, so you have to register the boat/vessel with DMV before you can put it in California waters. 

What is a Vessel Registration Number? Do I get one when I register? 

Your boat/vessel will get a vessel registration number (beginning with CF before the numbers) when you register your boat/vessel with DMV. 

You have to display your vessel registration number on your boat/vessel. Make sure it meets the following requirements. 

Your Vessel Registration Number must: 

  • Be painted on or permanently attached to each side of your boat/vessel’s bow. 
  • Be written in plain, vertical block letters and numbers that are more than three inches high. 
  • Be properly arranged so you can read it from left to right. 
  • Contrast with the color of the background so that it is easy to see and read. 
  • Have spaces or hyphens that are the same size as letters other than “I” or numbers other than “1”. 
  • Example A: CF 1234 AB 
  • Example B: CF-1234-AB 

Do I get a registration sticker for my boat/vessel? How do I display it? 

In addition to your vessel registration number, you will also receive a registration sticker. You should attach it to the both sides of your boat/vessel, three inches apart from your vessel registration number. 

Your registration sticker must be clearly visible at all times. Please do not place any numbers, letters, or devices near the registration sticker (other than your vessel registration number). 

What is a Hull Identification Number? Do I need one? 

Since 1972, all boats/vessels manufactured in the U.S. come with a Hull Identification Number (HIN). 

The HIN must be: 

  • Painted on or permanently attached to your boat/vessel so that it cannot be changed or removed. 
  • Assigned and attached by manufacturers to commercially built boats/vessels. 
  • Assigned by DMV for homemade boats/vessels. 

My certificate or registration sticker was lost, stolen, or damaged. What do I do now? 

If your California Certificate of Ownership is lost, stolen, or damaged, you can submit a completed Application for Duplicate or Transfer of Title (REG 227) form. 

If you lost your sticker, you can submit a completed Application for Replacement Plates, Stickers, Documents (REG 156) form to replace the lost certificates and/or stickers. 

When do I renew my boat/vessel registration? 

You must renew your boat/vessel registration by December 31 of every odd-numbered year (for example, 2013, 2017, etc.), even if you do not use your boat/vessel. 

To remind you that you need to renew your registration, DMV will mail you a renewal notice 60 days before your registration expires. 

If you renew your registration by mail, please return the bottom portion of your renewal notice in the envelope provided with a check, cashier’s check, or money order to cover your fees. If you do not receive or lose the renewal notice, you may contact DMV and pay your fees. 

I just bought a boat, but it’s already registered in California. What do I do? 

When you buy a boat/vessel from another person, you should also get the California Certificate of Ownership from the person who sold it to you. That person should sign/endorse the certificate on line 1. If there is a lienholder, you need their signature on line 2. 

Once you have the California Certificate of Ownership, write your name and address on the back. Then you can submit the certificate to DMV along with the transfer fee, use tax, and any renewal fees that might be due. 

If the boat/vessel has a trailer, you need to get the trailer title. If you cannot get a copy of the title, you can complete a Permanent Trailer Identification (PTI) Certification and Application (REG 4017) form to transfer it into your name. 

What if I decide to sell my boat/vessel? 

If you decide to sell your boat/vessel, you need to: 

You must provide the boat/vessel information (vessel registration number, HIN), the name and address of the buyer, and the sale date on the form. 

  • Submit the form online or by mail. 

If the boat/vessel has a trailer, give the titling and/or registration documents to the buyer and submit a separate Notice of Release of Liability (REG 138) form. 

Additional Information 

Boats and vessels registered in California are included in property taxes by the county tax collector, depending on where the boat/vessel is stored or moored. DMV might deny registration renewal or transfer if the county tax collector tells DMV that you have not paid your personal property taxes. 

Vessel registration becomes invalid when a boat/vessel is: 

  • Required to be documented by the U.S. Coast Guard. 
  • Transferred to a new owner. 
  • Destroyed or abandoned. 
  • No longer used primarily in California. 

You must tell the DMV when a boat/vessel is: 

  • Sold. 
  • Moved to a different storage location. 
  • Documented through the U.S. Coast Guard. 
  • Destroyed, lost, or abandoned. Return the California Certificate of Ownership to DMV within 15 

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