Missouri Boating Laws – What you need to know

Missouri’s Boater Education Law went into effect January 1, 2005. The law states that any person born after January 1, 1984 must successfully pass a Missouri Boater Education class before operating any motorized vessel on any lakes or waterways in the state. 

Who can take the Missouri boater education courses?  

Any person may take one of the Missouri boater education courses. There is no age limit on who can take the course. Missouri law states the operator of a boat must be 14 years of age unless accompanied by an adult on board the vessel. A child under 14 years of age operating a vessel (on the lakes of the state) with adult supervision would still need a boater identification card. 

Does the mandatory education law apply to the operation of a PWC (personal watercraft)?  


If I am an out of state resident, how do I comply with Missouri’s mandatory education law? 

Missouri’s mandatory education law does apply to out of state boaters operating a vessel on our lakes. Out of state boaters may obtain a Missouri boater safety identification card by taking one of the courses approved in Missouri, or by providing proof of a NASBLA approved course provided by their home state. Possessing a boater identification card from their home state on board the vessel is sufficient as well. 

Who May Operate a Motorboat or PWC

  • All persons must be at least 14 years of age to operate a motorboat or personal watercraft (PWC) legally unless under the direct, on-board supervision of a parent, guardian, or other person 16 years of age or older.
    • No person may knowingly permit a child under the minimum age to operate a motorboat or PWC unattended.
    • Parents and guardians are legally responsible for the underage operator and their actions. Boater Education Law
  • All persons born after January 1, 1984, who operate any vessel on the lakes of the State of Missouri must have on board:
    • A boating safety identification card issued by the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) or…
    • A Missouri driver’s license, or a non-driver’s license with a boating safety endorsement.
  • The boating safety card is obtained by successfully completing a boating safety course approved by the MSHP.
    • Missouri residents must have and present to a licensing office a boating safety identification card when adding the boating endorsement to the driver’s license or non-driver’s license.
    • The boating safety identification card requirement also applies to nonresidents.
  • Persons who possess a USCG or Power Squadron boating course certificate may apply for a certification card issued by the Highway Patrol. 

When preparing to go out on a vessel, the operator must check that the legally required equipment is on board.

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

  • All vessels 16 feet in length or longer must carry one U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)–approved wearable PFD (life jacket) for each person on board or being towed. Vessels less than 16 feet in length must carry one wearable or one throwable USCG–approved device for each person on board or being towed. Under federal law, however, a wearable PFD is required for each person on board regardless of vessel length.
  • One USCG–approved throwable device must be on board vessels 16 feet or longer and readily accessible, in addition to the above requirements.
  • Children under 7 years of age must wear a USCG–approved PFD at all times while on board any vessel, unless the child is confined in a totally enclosed area of the vessel, such as the cabin area of a houseboat or day cruiser.
  • Each person riding on a personal watercraft (PWC) must wear a USCG–approved Type I, II, III, or V PFD.
  • Besides being USCG–approved, all PFDs must be:
    • In good and serviceable condition.
    • Readily accessible, which means you are able to put the PFD on quickly in an emergency. PFDs may not be stowed in closed or locked compartments.
    • Of the proper size for the intended wearer. Sizing for PFDs is based on body weight and chest size. 

TYPE I: Wearable Offshore Life Jackets These vests are geared for rough or remote waters where rescue may take a while. They provide the most buoyancy, are excellent for flotation, and will turn most unconscious persons face up in the water.

TYPE II: Wearable Near-Shore Vests These vests are good for calm waters when quick rescue is likely. A Type II may not turn some unconscious wearers face up in the water.

TYPE III: Wearable Flotation Aids These vests or full-sleeved jackets are good for calm waters when quick rescue is likely. They are not recommended for rough waters because they will not turn most unconscious persons face up.

TYPE IV: Throwable Devices These cushions and ring buoys are designed to be thrown to someone in trouble. Because a throwable device is not designed to be worn, it is neither for rough waters nor for persons who are unable to hold onto it.

TYPE V: Wearable Special-Use Devices These vests, deck suits, hybrid PFDs, and others are designed for specific activities, such as windsurfing, kayaking, or water-skiing. To be acceptable, Type V PFDs must be used in accordance with their labels 

Vessel Length Classes  

A vessel’s length class determines the equipment necessary to comply with federal and state laws. Vessels are divided into classes by length:

  • 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

Length is measured from the tip of the bow in a straight line to the stern. This does not include outboard motors, brackets, rudders, bow attachments, or swim platforms and ladders that are not a molded part of the hull.  

Vessel Capacity  

Always check the capacity plate, which is usually found near the operator’s position or on the vessel’s transom. This plate indicates the maximum weight capacity and maximum number of people that the vessel can carry safely. Personal watercraft (PWC) and some other vessels are not required to have a capacity plate. Always follow the recommended capacity in the owner’s manual and on the manufacturer’s warning decal. 

Encountering Other Vessels  

Even though no vessel has the “right-of-way” over another vessel, there are some rules that every operator should follow when encountering other vessels. It is the responsibility of both operators to take whatever action is needed to avoid a collision. The next page shows what to do when encountering another vessel. 

Encountering Vessels With Limited Maneuverability  

When operating a power-driven vessel, you must give way to:

  • Any vessel not under command, such as an anchored or disabled vessel
  • Any vessel restricted in its ability to maneuver, such as a vessel towing another or laying cable, or one constrained by its draft, such as a large ship in a channel
  • A vessel engaged in commercial fishing
  • A sailboat under sail unless it is overtaking
  • A canoe or other vessel powered by paddles or oars alone

When operating a vessel under sail, you must give way to:

  • Any vessel not under command
  • Any vessel restricted in its ability to maneuver
  • A vessel engaged in commercial fishing 

Navigation Rules  

The following are guidelines and are not incorporated in Missouri State Statutes. Two terms help explain these navigation rules.  

Stand-on vessel: The vessel that should maintain its course and speed

Give-way vessel: The vessel that must take early and substantial action to avoid collision by stopping, slowing down, or changing course 

Missouri PWC Rules and Regulations

Although a PWC is considered an inboard motorboat and comes under the same rules and requirements of any other motorboat, there are specific considerations for the PWC operator. Steering and Stopping a PWC. PWC are propelled by drawing water into a pump and then forcing it out under pressure through a steering nozzle at the back of the unit. This “jet” of pressurized water is directed by the steering control—when the steering control is turned, the steering nozzle turns in the same direction. For example, if the steering control is turned right, the nozzle turns right, and the jet of water pushes the back of the vessel to the left, which causes the PWC to turn right. 

Engine Cut-Off Switches – Most PWC and powerboats come equipped by the manufacturer with an important device called an engine cut-off switch. This is a safety device that is designed to shut off the engine if the operator is thrown from the proper operating position. A lanyard is attached to the safety switch and the operator’s wrist or PFD. The safety switch shuts off the engine if the operator falls off the PWC or out of the powerboat. If your vessel does not come equipped with an engine cut-off switch, you should have one installed. It is illegal to ride your PWC without attaching the lanyard properly between the switch and yourself. 

Personal watercraft (PWC) operators must adhere to the legal requirements of all boating laws and those specific to the operation of PWC on Missouri waters. Requirements Specific to PWC:

  • Everyone on board a PWC while underway must wear a USCG–approved Type I, II, III, or V PFD.
  • An operator of a PWC equipped with a lanyard-type engine cut-off switch must attach the lanyard to his or her person, clothing, or PFD.
  • You must be at least 14 years of age to operate a PWC, unless a supervising person at least 16 years of age is also on board the PWC.
  • If born after January 1, 1984, you must have a boating safety identification card that is NASBLA–approved and issued by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, or other state, to operate a PWC.
  • It is illegal to operate a PWC while you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • PWC must be operated in a careful and responsible manner. Specifically, it is illegal for PWC operators to:
    • Weave the PWC through congested waterway traffic.
    • Jump the wake of another motorboat when visibility is obstructed.
    • Become airborne while crossing the wake of another motorboat and within 100 feet of that motorboat.
    • Operate at greater than “slow, no wake speed” within 50 feet of any other vessel, PWC, or person in the water.
    • Operate in a manner that requires swerving at the last possible moment to avoid collision.
  • Also, it is strongly recommended that PWC be operated only during daylight hours. If a PWC is operated at night, the PWC must display the required navigation lights.
  • PWC are exempt from displaying the skier-down flag. 

Navigation Lights

The required navigation lights differ depending on the type and size of your vessel. You must display the required navigation lights between sunset and sunrise, and you should display navigation lights during periods of restricted visibility. Motorboats When Underway These vessels must exhibit lights. Remember, motorboats include sailboats operating under power. The required lights are:

  • Red and green sidelights visible from a distance of at least one mile away on a dark, clear night.
  • An all-round white light or both a masthead light and a sternlight. These lights must be visible from a distance of at least two miles away on a dark, clear night. The all-round white light (or the masthead light and sternlight) must be visible from all directions in a 360-degree circle. Unpowered Vessels When Underway Unpowered vessels are sailboats or vessels that are paddled, poled, or rowed.
  • If less than 65.6 feet long, these vessels must exhibit lights. The required lights are:
    • Red and green sidelights visible from at least two miles away (or if less than 40 feet long, at least one mile).
    • A sternlight visible from at least two miles away.
  • If less than 23.0 feet long, these vessels should:
    • If practical, exhibit the same lights as required for unpowered vessels less than 65.6 feet in length.
    • If not practical, have on hand at least one lantern or flashlight shining a white light. All Vessels When Not Underway All vessels are required to use a white light visible from all directions whenever they are anchored or moored away from dock between sunset and sunrise. 

Fire Extinguishers

All vessels are required to have a Type B USCG–approved fire extinguisher on board if one or more of the following conditions exist:

  • Closed storage compartments in which flammable or combustible materials are stored
  • Closed living spaces
  • Permanently installed fuel tanks (any tank where the removal of the tank is hampered by the installation of tie-down straps or clamps)
  • Flammable or toxic fluids on board

Approved types of fire extinguishers are identified by the following marking on the label—“Marine Type USCG Approved”—followed by the type and size symbols and the approval number.

Extinguishers should be placed in an accessible area—not near the engine or in a compartment, but where they can be reached immediately. Be sure you know how to operate them, and inspect extinguishers regularly to ensure they are in working condition and fully charged. Use this chart to determine the size and quantity required for your vessel.

Length of VesselWithout Fixed SystemWith Fixed System
Less than 26 ft.one 5-Bnone
26 ft. to less than 40 ft.two 5-B or one 20-Bone 5-B
40 ft. to less than 65 ft.three 5-B or one 20-B and one 5-Btwo 5-B or one 20-B

Missouri Water Skiing rules

Motorboat and personal watercraft (PWC) operators towing a person(s) on water skis or a similar device have additional laws they must follow 

Requirements for Towing Skiers:

  • Every motorboat or PWC towing a person(s) on water skis, a wakeboard, or any other device other than a parasail must have either:
    • A person on board, in addition to the operator, observing the towed person(s) at all times (preferably the observer is at least 12 years old) or…
    • An approved ski mirror that is at least three inches in height and eight inches in width, gives 180 degrees of vision behind the operator, and is designed as a ski mirror. The Missouri State Highway Patrol does not recognize the manufacturer’s mirrors on PWC as being sufficient for this purpose.
  • Every motorboat or PWC towing a parasailer must have a person at least 12 years old on board, in addition to the operator, actively observing the parasailer.
  • Persons may be towed behind a motorboat or PWC on water skis, a surfboard, parasail, or any other device only during daylight hours (sunrise to sunset).
  • A reasonable distance from other vessels, people, and property must be maintained so as not to endanger life or property. It is illegal to cause the person being towed to collide with any object or person.
  • An operator of a motorboat on waters of the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, or Missouri lakes between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and sunset must display a skier-down flag clearly whenever the towed person(s) is in the water. The flag should be lowered while the motorboat is engaged in towing but should be displayed again when the towed person enters the water.
  • In addition, it is strongly recommended that all persons being towed behind a motorboat or PWC on water skis or any other device wear a USCG–approved PFD. Ski belts are not USCG–approved.
  • It is against Missouri law to operate water skis, wakeboards, or other such devices while intoxicated. 

Safety Inspections  

The Missouri State Highway Patrol inspects thousands of vessels annually. A safety inspection determines that equipment complies with state law. A safety inspection involves the following:  

  • The certificate of number (registration card) for the vessel is checked to determine if the registration is current.
  • The registration number display is checked to determine if number spacing, height, block style, and contrasting color requirements are correct.
  • Personal flotation devices are checked for accessibility, serviceability, proper size, quantity, and type.
  • Sound-producing devices are checked for operability. Bells are checked for vessels 40 feet and over in length.
  • Fire extinguishers are checked for proper type, size, and adequate charge.
  • Ventilation systems are checked for functional operation.
  • Mufflers are checked to determine compliance with sound level requirements, when applicable.
  • When marine toilets are on board, they are inspected for proper storage of waste materials.
  • Outboard motors are checked for the registration decal and motor serial number.
  • Navigation lights are checked to make sure the colored lenses are in the correct positions. Navigation lights are not required to pass a safety inspection, unless you intend to operate your vessel after sunset.  

Upon successful completion of a safety inspection, the vessel owner is awarded a safety inspection decal that signifies compliance with Missouri boating equipment requirements. This decal is affixed by the Highway Patrol trooper immediately behind the registration number display on the port (left) side of the vessel. 

Missouri Registering and Titling Your Boat

  • This Certificate of Number (Pocket Card) must be on board and available for inspection by an enforcement officer whenever the vessel is operated.
  • You must have a Missouri Certificate of Number and validation decals to operate your vessel legally on the public waters of Missouri. The only exceptions are:
    • Non-motorized vessels
    • Sailboats 12 feet or less in length
    • Vessels registered in other states using Missouri waters for 60 consecutive days or less
  • The Certificate of Number and validation decals are obtained by submitting the proper application and fee to: Missouri Department of Revenue Boat Titling and Registration P.O. Box 100 Jefferson City, MO 65105
  • The registration number and validation decals must be displayed as follows:
    • Number must be painted, applied as a decal, or otherwise affixed to both sides of the bow above the waterline.
    • Number must read from left to right on both sides of the bow.
    • Number must be in at least 3″-high BLOCK letters.
    • Number’s color must sharply contrast with its background.
    • Letters and numbers must be separated by at least a 2″ space. For example: MO 3717 ZW.
    • No other numbers may be displayed on either side of the bow.
    • Decals must be affixed on both sides of the vessel, directly underneath the main body of the registration number or, if there is insufficient room underneath, as close as possible to the registration number.
  • If your vessel requires registration, it is illegal to operate it or allow others to operate your vessel unless it is registered and numbered as described above.
  • The Department of Revenue or an authorized boat dealer may issue a temporary operating permit, valid for 30 days, to permit lawful operation of the vessel until titling and registration with the department are complete. 

Other Facts About Titling and Registration

  • In addition to registration, all motorized vessels and all sailboats over 12 feet in length must be titled.
  • A Certificate of Number is valid for three years and will expire on June 30 of the third year. Owners of vessels that have already been registered may be sent a renewal notice to their residence without action by the owner.
  • If you change your address, you must notify the Missouri Department of Revenue (MDOR) within 15 days of the change.
  • If a numbered vessel is lost, stolen, or abandoned, the owner should report it to local authorities and to the MDOR within 15 days of such event.
  • If you lose or destroy your Certificate of Number or decal, you must apply to the MDOR for a duplicate, and submit a processing fee.
  • When registering your vessel, you must submit a paid personal property tax receipt or a statement of non-assessment from the previous year.
  • If the vessel is not listed on the tax receipt, the applicant must submit one of the following:
    • Corrected tax receipt that lists the vessel (if manually corrected, it must contain the county seal) or…
    • A letter signed by an authorized representative from the county tax collector’s office that contains the county seal and indicates that taxes have been paid on the specific vessel.  

Recent Posts