North Carolina Boating Laws – What you need to know

Every year, thousands of boating enthusiasts take to the waterways of North Carolina to fish, sail, water ski, and pursue other vessel-based recreation. To make certain that the public is safe, responsible, and free to enjoy boating activities throughout the state, the Wildlife Resources Commission enforces laws and regulations that all should observe. This site provides a single resource for obtaining all the facts you need to know. 

How old does a vessel operator need to be?

Any person born on or after January 1, 1988 must successfully complete a NASBLA approved boating education course before operating any vessel propelled by a motor of 10 HP or greater. G.S. 75A-16.2

North Carolina Boating Laws and Regulations – Age and Operator Restrictions

A person younger than 14 years old may not operate a PWC legally.

A person 14 or 15 years old may operate a PWC only if:

  • He or she is accompanied on board the PWC by a person who is at least 18 years old and who is in compliance with the requirements for operating a vessel or…
  • He or she has on his or her person identification showing proof of age and a boating certification card showing proof of passing a boating safety course approved by NASBLA and accepted by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission or…
  • He or she has on his or her person identification showing proof of age and proof of other boating safety education in compliance with state laws.

Anyone 16 years old or older and born on or after January 1, 1988, may operate a PWC with a motor of 10 hp or greater only if he or she is in compliance with the requirements for operating a vessel.

For a Safe Boating Experience, Always Wear a Life Vest

North Carolina requires anyone younger than 13 to wear an appropriate life vest when on a recreational vessel that is underway. Anyone riding a personal watercraft or being towed by one must also wear an appropriate life vest.

Both state and federal regulations require that a Type I, II or III personal flotation device in good condition and of appropriate size be accessible for each person onboard a recreational vessel, including canoes, kayaks, rowboats and other non-motorized craft. (Sailboards, racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes and racing kayaks are exempt from this requirement.)

“Accidents can happen quickly and without warning,” said Major Chris Huebner of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the state’s boating safety coordinator. “In those situations, there often isn’t time to grab a life vest and put it on properly before you are in the water. The best preparation is to wear it whenever you are underway. A life vest can be a life saver when it’s worn. It also gives you the ability to assist others who may be in danger.”

When choosing a life vest for a child, always check for:

  • U.S. Coast Guard approved label
  • Matching it to the child’s current weight
  • Making sure it is snug but comfortable

Rules of the Water

  • Every boat operator has the obligation to take whatever action is necessary to avoid an accident.
  • File a Float Plan: Document essential information or fill out a form about your excursion and leave it with a reliable person who can be depended upon to notify the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) or another rescue organization, should you not return as scheduled. (Do not file float plan with the USCG.)
  •   North Carolina Boating Checklist – See below
  • Navigation Aids and Regulatory Markers: Reference Vessel Operator’s Guide, page 17-19.
  • Passing: 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.
  • Report Boating Accidents: Boating accidents that occur on public waters must be reported to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (24-hour toll free at 800-662-7137) when any one of the following occur:
    – Loss of life, an injury requiring medical treatment or a person is unconscious or left disabled for 24 hours
    – Actual physical damage to property (including vessels) is in excess of $2,000
    – A person disappears from the vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury.


SubjectPersonal Watercrafts (PWCs)Boats Less Than 16 FeetBoats 16 Feet to Less Than 26 FeetRelated Information
Float Plan
CheckmarkCheckmarkCheckmark1. Required for PWC operators 14 years of age or older.  No person under 14 years of age may operate a PWC. Persons 14 years of age or older may also operate without a boating education certificate if physically accompanied on the PWC by an adult at least 18 years of age and meets the requirements of G.S. 16.2 .2. In North Carolina, any person born on or after January 1, 1988 must complete a NASBLA approved boating education course before operating any vessel propelled by a motor of 10 HP or greater on public waterways. G.S. 75A-16.23. Those on personal watercraft (PWCs) must wear an approved personal flotation device (life jacket) at all times.

4.Children under 13 years of age must wear an approved life jacket while underway. **

5. Safety kill switch lanyard must be attached to operator.6. Required on inboards and stern drives only.7. Required only when boating on federally controlled waters.8. Certain items are not applicable to PWCs because PWCs are not allowed to operate between sunset and sunrise.9. Safety kill switch and lanyard not required but recommended.
Boater Education Certificate On Board 1 & 2Checkmark2Checkmark2
Certificate of Number Registration On BoardCheckmarkCheckmarkCheckmark
Validation Decals DisplayedCheckmarkCheckmarkCheckmark
PFDs: Type I, II, or III for each person on board344
PFD: Type IVn/an/a
Type B-I Fire ExtinguisherCheckmarkCheckmarkCheckmark
Ignition Safety Switch Checkmark5Checkmark9Checkmark9
Backfire Flame ArrestorCheckmarkCheckmark6Checkmark6
Ventilation SystemCheckmarkCheckmarkCheckmark
Horn, Whistle, or BellCheckmarkCheckmarkCheckmark
Daytime Visual Distress Signalsn/an/a7
Nighttime Visual Distress Signals8Checkmark7Checkmark7
Navigation Lights8CheckmarkCheckmark

Wake Responsibly

Law Enforcement Officers with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission enforce the boating laws and navigational rules in North Carolina’s public waters to create a safe boating environment for everyone. Officers continually and proactively enforce laws and rules regarding authorized no-wake zones, as well as the reckless and negligent operation of any motorboat or vessel on these waters. 

Please follow these recommendations to “wake responsibly”:

  • Stay at least 200 feet away from the shoreline, docks or other structures.
  • Keep music at reasonable levels. Sound travels well over water. If it is loud enough to hear at 80 feet back, it is likely loud enough for homeowners and other to hear as well.
  • Minimize repetitive passes on any one portion of the shoreline. Once you’ve run the same line for a while, move on to another area. 

 Wake and Wake Boats

  • Wake boats are high-tech, specialized boats with ballasts that fill with water to adjust for the size of wake desired.
  • Wake boats can produce significant wake (3 – 4 feet) at low speeds (10 mph).
  • In general, the boats are not the problem, but rather the wake produced by the vessels.
  • While wake boats are designed to create significant wake, wake is not vessel specific.   
  • Wake is one of many factors that can cause erosion.
  • Erosion, dock/boat property damage and noise are the primary complaints associated with the use of wake boats.
  • Because the ballasts of wake boats fill with water, the transfer of aquatic nuisance species could be an issue.
  • Concerns about wake boats are a nationwide issue.

No Wake Zones in North Carolina

Definition and Statutory Authority

A “No Wake Zone” is an area within which vessels are required to travel at idling speed – slow speed that creates no appreciable wake. North Carolina General Statute §75A-15 authorizes the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) to establish water safety rules solely in the interest of mitigating water safety hazards. Rules adopted for placement of waterway markers establishing No Wake Zones also may be subject to approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard, and in coastal counties by the Division of Coastal Management of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. 

What is the Clean Vessel Act?

Congress passed the Clean Vessel Act in 1992 (CVA) to help reduce pollution from vessel sewage discharges. The Act established a federal grant program administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and authorized money from the Sport Fish Restoration Account of the Aquatic Resources Trust Fund for use by the States. Federal funds are used for public outreach and for installation, renovation, operation, and maintenance of pumpout and dump stations. Marinas can be reimbursed by these funds for up to 75% of the approved project costs.

Purpose: Provide pumpout and dump stations for boaters to dispose of human waste in an environmentally safe manner. Pumpout stations are used to pump waste out of recreational boat holding tanks. Dump stations are used to empty portable toilets. Appropriate State agencies are the only entities eligible to receive grant funds.

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