Tennessee Boating Laws – What you need to know

Tennessee is one of the nation’s leading states offering recreational waterways, and most “Volunteer State” residents will at some time take advantage of this tremendous opportunity. It is the responsibility of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to enforce and administer the provisions of the “Tennessee Boating Safety Act.” Enforcement officers of the Agency are on the water to assist boaters as well as to enforce laws and to provide control when necessary. 

Young Operators 

  • Any Tennessee resident born after January 1, 1989 must have in their possession a TWRA-issued card showing proof of successful completion of the TWRA administered boating safety exam if operating alone. 
  • Persons under 12 years old may not operate a powered boat of more than 8.5 horsepower unless accompanied by an adult who can take immediate control of the vessel. 
  • If the accompanying adult (18 yrs. or older) is born after January 1, 1989, then he/she must have the boating safety certification card onboard. 

Boating under the influence 

It is unlawful to operate any sail or powered vessel while under the influence of intoxicants or drugs. Here are some important facts to consider. 

Implied Consent 

All persons operating a sail or powered vessel have given their implied consent to chemical tests to determine the alcohol or drug content of their blood. Failure to consent to testing is a separate offense and may result in suspension of vessel operating privileges for six months. 

Presumption of Guilt 

A vessel operator whose BAC tests show .08% or greater by weight, of alcohol shall constitute a violation of this statute and is presumed under the influence and his or her ability to operate a vessel is impaired. 

Blood-Alcohol Test Required 

Blood-alcohol content may be taken from all operators involved in an accident where death or serious injury occurred. 


Conviction for operating under the influence will result in fines of up to $2,500 on the first offense, $2,500 on the second offense and $5,000 for the third offense. A jail sentence of 11 months and 29 days may also be imposed for any conviction and operating privileges may be suspended from one to ten years. Additional federal penalties may also be charged. 

No Wake (Idle Speed) Areas 

Unless otherwise marked, all vessels operating within 300 feet of a commercial boat dock must do so at a slow wake speed regardless of whether or not the area is marked by buoys. “No wake” is defined as a vessel traveling at or below idle speed, or at such speed that the boat or its wake (waves) is not sufficient to cause possible injury or damage to other persons, boats, or property. 

Driving Safety 

Boats must not operate within 50 feet of a diver’s- down flag and a slow, no-wake idle speed restriction is automatically imposed within 200 feet of the flag. 

A diver is any person who is in the water and equipped with a face mask, snorkel or underwater breathing apparatus.  All divers, regardless of whether they are diving from a boat, shall prominently display a diver’s-down flag in the area in which they are diving and must surface within 50 feet of the flag. After dusk the flag must be illuminated so it can be seen from a minimum of 300 feet. 

Any boat used as a necessary part of the diving operation must display, from its mast a diver’s-down flag at least 20 inches x 24 inches in size and an international code flag Alpha so that they are visible from 360 degrees. After dark such boats shall illuminate their flags so they are visible from a minimum of 300 feet. 

Personal Watercraft (PWC) 

Personal watercraft are those vessels (boats) which are designed to be operated by a person sitting, standing, or kneeling on the craft rather than sitting or standing inside the vessel. 

It includes but is not limited to jet skis, wet bikes, wave runners, sea doos and similar craft.  Personal watercraft are considered powered vessels and must adhere to the same rules as any other boat.  They must be registered, carry flotation devices and be operated at a speed safe enough for the operator to avoid a collision or stop in time to avoid an accident. 

Additionally, personal watercraft operators should be aware of the following: 

  • Jumping the immediate wake (within 100 feet) of another vessel, weaving through congested vessel traffic and riding close to ramps, docks, or the shore is considered reckless operation. 
  • All persons operating or using personal watercraft must wear a personal flotation device (life jacket), Type I, II, or III (Inflatable cannot be used). 
  • No person shall operate a personal watercraft between sunset and sunrise. 
  • Persons under 12 years of age may not operate a personal watercraft unless an adult is on board who can take immediate control of the boat. 
  • Persons who allow an under-aged operator to use a personal watercraft may be prosecuted in addition to, or in lieu of, the operator. 
  • Personal watercraft being used to tow skiers, surfboards or other devices must be equipped with 2 mirrors (at least 2 1/2 by 4 inches) or have a person, 12 years or older, to observe the progress of the skier. 
  • The mirrors must be mounted on each side of the personal watercraft (not on the handle bars). 
  • Sailboards (windsurfers) are not considered vessels and do not have to be registered. A personal flotation device is recommended but not required for sailboards. 

Water Skiing 

Any vessel used to tow a person on water skis, surfboard or similar device must follow these regulations: 

  • Skiing is prohibited from sunset to sunrise and during inclement weather.  
  • Vessels towing skiers must be equipped with a 170 degree, wide-angle rearview mirror or have on board a person 12 years or older, other than the operator to observe the progress of the skier.  
  • Skiers must wear an adequate and effective life preserver, buoyant vest or life belt. If the device worn is not Coast Guard approved, then an approved device for the skier must be on board the towing vessel.  
  • Citations to court may be issued to the vessel operator and/or the skier if the vessel or the ski are manipulated in a manner which endangers life limb or property.  
  • Do not ski near, or in front of, tow boats or other large craft since their visibility is restricted and their ability to stop quickly or maneuver is extremely limited.  
  • Driver and passengers must not sit on deck, gunwales or transom while the boat is in motion. 


Human-powered vessels, such as: CANOES • KAYAKS • STAND UP PADDLEBOARDS (SUP)  

  • An approved, wearable life jacket for each person must be readily accessible. Throw cushions do not meet this requirement.  
  • Life jacket(s) must be on board, not attached by a line or leash.  
  • Persons under 13 years old must wear a life jacket while underway. Drifting is considered underway.  
  • All paddle craft must be able to exhibit a white light or lantern after sunset or during times of restricted visibility.  
  • Boater’s state registration card must be on board if boat is propelled by motor or a trolling motor.  
  • A fishing license is required by all persons 13 years or older assisting or attempting to take fish.  
  • Do not litter. It is unlawful to throw or sink litter from a boat. In the event that a boat turns over, all contents must be retrieved.  
  • It is unlawful to use or be in possession of drugs or controlled substances while boating or paddling.  
  • Use or possession of alcohol by individuals who are underage is prohibited.  
  • No person shall operate or interfere with the safe operation of any motorboat or vessel.  
  • All boats are subject to inspection.  
  • All navigation rules apply.  
  • Keep a proper lookout at all times.  

OTHER HELPFUL HINTS: Inflatable belt pack life jackets need to be worn with the device in front of the body, not turned to the back side of the body. Inflatable life jackets are not approved for anyone less than 16 years old. Do not overload your boat.  

Reckless Boating 

Reckless operation of a vessel, water skies or similar device is one of the most serious offenses in Tennessee boating law. Violations are punishable by a fine of $2500 and six months in jail. Additionally, the Coast Guard may impose a civil penalty of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of one year. Reckless operation is defined as any act which endangers life, limb or property. 

Examples of reckless operation are: 

  • Operating a vessel in swimming areas. 
  • Riding on seatbacks, gunwales, transoms or pedestal seats while above an idle speed. 
  • Excessive speed in crowded areas, dangerous areas or during restricted visibility. 
  • Operating an overloaded vessel. 
  • Towing a skier in a crowded area where a fallen skier is likely to be hit by other vessels or towing in areas where the skier is likely to strike an obstacle. 
  • Using a personal watercraft to jump the immediate wake of another vessel. 

Reporting Accidents 

Vessel operators involved in an accident must notify TWRA immediately. Any boating accident involving death, or injury requiring medical treatment beyond first aid, or the disappearance of a person should be reported as soon as possible, and must be reported within 48 hours.  
All accidents involving property damage in excess of $2000 (to one vessel or a combination of both vessels) must be reported within 10 days. The operator of every vessel involved in a reportable boating accident is required to file an accident form with the TWRA. Failure to report a boating accident is a criminal offense and may result in prosecution by the TWRA.  
Giving assistance is required. Whenever a boat is involved in an accident, it is the duty of the operator to give necessary assistance, as long as it will not personally endanger the operator, the passengers, or vessel.  
Incidents Involving Serious Injury or Death: Vessel operators involved in incidents where persons are seriously injured or killed may be charged with a felony resulting in a fine of $10,000 and 15 years imprisonment. 

Noise Levels 

Engines of all motorized vessels must have an effective muffling system.  The noise level of any motorized vessel may not exceed 86 decibels at 50 feet or more. Manufacturers may not sell vessels which do not meet the noise level requirements. 

Boat Lighting 

All boats operating between sunset and sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility are required to display the appropriate lights.   Boats are considered underway and must show all the appropriate lights unless they are anchored, moored or aground.   Anchored vessels must show the appropriate anchor lights. 

  • Power Driven Vessels Boats built before December 25, 1981, and less than 20 meters (65 ft. 6 in.) shall exhibit navigation lights as displayed in either figure 1, 2 or 3. 
  • Boats built after December 25, 1981, and less than 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.)in length may use figure 1, 2 or 3. 
  • Boats built after December 25, 1981, 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.) or more in length but less than 20 meters (65 ft. 6 in.) must use figure 1 or 2.  
  • If the lighting display in figure 1 is used, the aft masthead light must be higher than the forward one; if figure 2 is selected, a vessel less than 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.) must have the masthead light 1 meter (3 ft. 3 in.) higher than the colored lights. 
  • If the vessel is using figure 2 and is 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.) or more in length but less than 20 meters (65 ft. 6 in.) then the masthead light must be 2.5 meters (8 ft. 2 in.) higher than the gunwale. 
  • Sailing Vessels & Vessels Under sail alone, shall exhibit the lights shown on figure 4, 5 or 6. 
  • A vessel under oars or a sailing vessel of less than 7 meters (22 ft. 10 in.) shall, if practicable, exhibit the lights prescribed in figure 4, 5 or 6. 
  • However, if she does not, she must have ready at hand an electric light or lighted lantern showing a white light as seen in figure 7 which must be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collisions. 
  • During daylight operation, vessels 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.) and over using sail and machinery must display the shape of a black cone pointing down. 

Lights Required While Anchored 

  • An anchor light is an all-round white light, visible for 2 miles, which is exhibited in the forepart of the vessel or where it can best be seen. 
  • Power driven and sailing vessels less than 7 meters (23 feet) must display an anchor light when anchored in or near a narrow channel, fairway or anchorage where other vessels normally navigate.  
  • Power driven and sailing vessels 7-20 meters (23 to 65.6 feet) are required to show an anchor light except when in a special anchorage area designated by the Secretary of Transportation or other authority.  
  • A sailing vessel under machinery power and sails is considered a power-driven vessel. 

Safety Hazards 

Each year, boaters are injured or killed by carbon monoxide. Most incidents occur on older boats and within the cabin or other enclosed areas. Exhaust leaks, the leading because of death by carbon monoxide, can allow carbon monoxide to migrate throughout the boat and into enclosed areas. New areas of concern are the rear deck platform with the generator or engines running and teak surfing or dragging behind a slow-moving boat. Regular maintenance and proper boat operation can reduce the risk of injury from carbon monoxide.  

Carbon monoxide is a potentially deadly gas produced any time that a carbon-based fuel, such as gasoline, propane, charcoal, or oil, burns. Sources on your boat include gasoline engines, generators, cooking ranges, and space and water heaters. Cold or poorly tuned engines produce more carbon monoxide than warm, properly tuned engines.  

Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and mixes evenly with the air. It enters your bloodstream through the lungs and displaces the oxygen your body needs. Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning – irritated eyes, headache, nausea, weakness, and dizziness – are often confused with seasickness or intoxication. Prolonged exposure to low concentrations or very short exposure to high concentrations can lead to death. 

All carbon monoxide poisonings are preventable! 

Avoid Death Zones 

  • Swimming near or under the back deck or swim platform. Carbon monoxide from exhaust pipes of inboard engines, outboard engines, and generators build up inside and outside the boat in areas near exhaust vents. Stay away from these exhaust vent areas and do not swim in these areas when the motor or generator is operating. 
  • On calm days, wait at least 15 minutes after the motor or generator has been shut off before entering these areas. 
  • Never enter an enclosed area under a swim platform where the exhaust is vented, not even for a second. It only takes one or two breaths of the air in this “death chamber” for it to be fatal. 
  • Teak surfing, dragging and water skiing within 20 feet of a moving watercraft can be fatal. 

Did You Know? 

  • Blockage of exhaust outlets can cause carbon monoxide to accumulate in the cabin and cockpit area – even when hatches, windows, portholes, and doors are closed. 
  • Exhaust from another vessel that is docked, beached, or anchored alongside your boat can emit poisonous carbon monoxide gas into the cabin and cockpit of your boat. Even with properly vented exhaust, your boat should be a minimum of 20 feet from the nearest boat that is running a generator or engine. 
  • Slow speeds or idling in the water can cause carbon monoxide gas to accumulate in the cabin, cockpit, bridge, and aft deck, even in an open area. A tailwind can also increase accumulation. 
  • The “station wagon effect,” or back drafting can cause carbon monoxide to accumulate inside the cabin, cockpit and bridge when operating the boat at a high bow angle, with improper or heave loading or if there is an opening which draws in the exhaust. This effect can also cause carbon monoxide to accumulate inside the cabin, cockpit, aft deck, and bridge when protective coverings are used and the boat is underway. 

What to Do 

  • Educate family and friends about carbon monoxide so they are aware of what the early poisoning signs are. 
  • If your boat has rear-vented generator exhaust, check with the boat manufacturer for possible recall or reroute the exhaust to a safe area. 
  • Assign an adult to watch when anyone is swimming or playing in the water. 
  • Schedule regular engine and exhaust system maintenance inspections by experienced and trained technicians. 
  • Keep forward-facing hatches open, even in inclement weather, to allow fresh air circulation in living spaces. When possible, run the boat so that prevailing winds will help dissipate the exhaust. 
  • Do not confuse carbon monoxide poisoning with seasickness, intoxication or heat stress. If someone on board complains of irritated eyes, headache, nausea, weakness or dizziness, immediately move the person to fresh air, investigate the cause and take corrective action. Seek medical attention if necessary. 
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector in each accommodation space on your boat. Test the operation of each detector before each trip. 

Propeller Safety 

Protect those toes, feet, legs, and lives. Be aware of your boat’s “danger zone.” Swim platforms, ladders, and slides are all located in the rear of the boat where the propeller is lurking right under the water. Use caution when swimming, loading, or jumping off the rear of boats. Turn the engine off when people are swimming near the boat. On larger boats, have someone to visually check the stern area for persons in the water before placing engines in reverse. 

Electricity and Boats 

All power cords used on boats should be rated suitable for Marine Use, or UL-Marine listed. Never use ordinary “outdoor-use” extension cords to provide electrical shore power to the boats. Never leave a shore power cord on the dock with only the plug end connected. A live cord end is dangerous, especially if it accidentally falls into the water. When AC current leaks out of the AC system and reaches any grounded item on the boat that is in contact with the water then this leakage current will spread out on the water and anyone swimming in the field will be subject to electrical shock. 

Clean Vessel Act Program 

In 1992, Congress passed the Clean Vessel Act to help reduce pollution from vessel sewage discharges into U.S. waters. The Grant Program established by the Act is for the funding of the construction, renovation, operation, and maintenance of pump out stations, dump stations, and pumpout vessels to service pleasure craft. As part of its commitment to provide clean, safe, and enjoyable recreational boating in Tennessee, TWRA serves as the State Grant coordinator. The Department will also provide boater education programs to promote public awareness about boat sewage and its proper disposal. 

The Clean Vessel Act grant funds are available to both the public and private sector. This includes all local governmental entities and private businesses that own and operate boating facilities that are open to the general public. 

More Information regarding the Tennessee Clean Vessel Act Program or Marine Sanitation Laws within Tennessee, please call (866) 416-4488

Tips for Fueling up 

  • Stop smoking and extinguish all fires. 
  • Close all vents, doors, hatches. 
  • Ground the nozzle to tank opening. 
  • Portable tanks should be filled outside of boat. 
  • Ventilate engine compartment before starting. 

Carrying Passengers for Hire 

Before a person may carry passengers for hire on the navigable waters of the United States, an appropriate license must be obtained from the U. S. Coast Guard.  This includes ferry service, fishing guide service or any operation where consideration (monetary or otherwise) is required from the passengers.  Only Type I PFDs are acceptable when carrying passengers for hire. Some equipment requirements vary with the classification of the vessel and the number of passengers carried. 

For questions about licensing and equipment requirements, contact the nearest U. S. Coast Guard Marine Safety office. 

Law Enforcement 

Every officer of the Agency has the authority to stop and board any vessel subject to the State Boating Act. They may issue citations or, when necessary, they may arrest, on sight, without warrant, any person they see violating any provisions of the Act. 

Most Agency vessels may be recognized by the orange and green stripes near the bow and the words WILDLIFE RESOURCES on the sides; however, unmarked vessels are also used. Boaters who are signaled to stop must do so immediately and maneuver in such a way that the officer may come along side or come aboard. 

TWRA officers monitor marine radio channel 17 and can also be contacted through the regional TWRA dispatcher at the toll-free number. 

Before Leaving 

  • Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. 
  • Check weather forecasts. 
  • Ventilate bilges before starting engine. 
  • Be sure your boat is basically equipped. 

Additional information can be obtained by contacting Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 

5107 Edmondson Pike 
Ellington Agricultural Center 
Nashville, TN 37211 
(615) 781-6500 

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