Washington Boating Laws – What you need to know

If you are boating in Washington, you must have a Washington State Boater Education Card with you when operating a boat 15 horsepower or greater. If you were born before January 1, 1955, you are exempt. 

Operator Age and Boating Education Requirements 

Counties and cities may have further restrictions so remember to check in with them before heading out on the water.  

  • Anyone 12 years old and older may operate a motorboat of 15 horsepower and greater with a Washington Boater Education Card
  • Without a card, the person must be supervised by someone at least 16 years old, who is carrying a Boater Education Card. 
  • Anyone born before January 1, 1955 is exempt from needing to carry a Boater Education Card. 
  • Personal Watercraft – You must be at least 14 years old to operate a personal watercraft. Remember, it is illegal to lease, hire, or rent a personal watercraft to anyone under 16 years old.  

Registering your Vessel 

Register your boat with the Washington State Department of Licensing. To navigate, operate, employ, or moor your vessel in Washington, you must have a Washington title, registration card, and registration decals, except when your vessel is: 

  • a canoe, kayak, or not propelled by a motor or sail. 
  • less than 16 feet in length and has a motor of 10 horsepower or less and is used on non-federal waters only. 
  • properly registered by a resident of another state or country who uses Washington waters for 60 days or fewer. 

The registration card (the cutout portion of the Vessel Registration Certificate) must be onboard whenever you use your vessel. 

Equipment Requirements 

The Adventures in Boating Washington Handbook provides a checklist of legally required items by boat type and size. The following is a short list of key equipment you should carry on board. 

Life Jackets 

  • All vessels, including canoes and kayaks, must have at least one U.S. Coast Guard–approved Type I, II, or III life jacket for each person on board. 
  • Boats 16 feet or longer must carry one Type IV (throwable) U.S. Coast Guard–approved life preserver in addition to Type I, II or III. Canoes and kayaks are exempt from this requirement.  

Fire Extinguishers 

Vessels with a motor must maintain a Type B fire extinguisher on board if one or more of the following conditions exist: 

  • Inboard engine 
  • Vessel length of 26 feet or longer 
  • Closed compartments used to store portable fuel tanks and other flammable materials 
  • Double-bottoms not sealed to the hull or which are not completely filled with flotation material 
  • Enclosed living spaces 
  • Permanently installed fuel tanks  

Navigation Lights 

The required navigation lights must be displayed between sunset and sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility such as fog or heavy rain. See requirements for larger vessels by visiting the U.S. Coast Guard’s online navigation rules. 

Ventilation Systems, Backfire Flame Arrestors, Mufflers 

Properly installed ventilation systems greatly reduce the chances of life-threatening explosions. Find out about ventilation requirements for various gasoline-powered vessels. A gasoline-powered motorboat (not outboard) requires a backfire flame arrestor as well. Mufflers are required for all vessels, except canoes and kayaks. 

Sound Signals 

All boaters, including those using canoes, kayaks, and personal watercraft, must carry a sound signal, such as a horn, bell, or whistle. Learn key sound signals to avoid confusion and or collisions. The device must be audible for a half-mile. 

Carbon Monoxide Warning Sticker 

All boats, except canoes, kayaks, and personal watercraft, must display a sticker warning passengers about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Life Jackets must be worn – It’s the Law 

We encourage all boaters – adults and children – to wear a life jacket when boating. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that life jackets could have saved the lives of more than 80 percent of the people who died while boating. 

  • All vessels, including canoes and kayaks, must have at least one U.S. Coast Guard–approved Type I, II, or III life jacket for each person on board. 
  • One U.S. Coast Guard–approved Type IV (throwable) flotation device must be on board vessels 16 feet or longer. Canoes and kayaks are exempt from this requirement. 
  • Children 12 years old and younger must wear a U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jacket at all times when underway in a vessel less than 19 feet in length, unless they are in a fully enclosed area. 
  • Each person on a personal watercraft and anyone being towed behind a vessel must wear a Type I, II, or III U.S.Coast Guard–approved life jacket. Inflatable life jackets are not recommended for these activities. 

Choose the Right Life Jacket 

The right life jacket for you and your crew depends on your activity, vessel, and the body of water. The good news is that when you find one that suits your needs, and fits you like a pair of comfortable shoes, you may not even know you have it on.  

  • Life jackets must be U.S. Coast Guard approved and the right size for the intended wearer. 
  • Sizes are not standard and vary by manufacture. 
  • Approval is shown by a stencil marking or tag. It shows the amount of flotation, the type, the size, and approved activities or any limitations for use. 

Remember, Size Matters  

If a life jacket fits properly, it will help keep your head above the water. If it’s too big, the life jacket will ride up around your face, and if it’s too small, it won’t keep your body afloat. 

Life jackets designed for adults are not designed, or legal, for children to wear. 

  • The Touchdown Test for Adults: With the jacket on, raise your arms as though signaling a touchdown. Look to the left and then to the right, making sure the jacket doesn’t hit the chin. 
  • The 3-inch Rule for Kids: With the child standing normally, arms at side, grab the shoulders of the life jacket and lift up. If you can move the life jacket more than 3 inches up (or above the ears), it doesn’t fit properly. How high the jacket rides is how it will fit them in water. Straps should be snug. 

Life Jacket Loaner Program 

  • The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s Boating Program provides life jackets to boaters throughout the state. You can check out life jackets for a day or a week. Life Jacket Loaner Stations are in marinas, near boat ramps, and at some parks. Boaters and swimmers may borrow the life jackets to replace missing or damaged life jackets, or use for them extra guests aboard their boats. 
  • Local county sheriff’s departments and some police departments also have life jackets to loan. 

Be Whale Wise 

Vessel traffic is one of a number of things impacting the survival of southern resident killer whales, which are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Boaters can do their part to protect southern resident killer whales and keep themselves safe by following Be Whale Wise regulations, which include: 

  • Staying at least 300 yards from southern resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of the path behind or in front of the whales. 
  • Slowing down to seven knots within a half-mile of southern residents 
  • Watching for and using the Whale Warning Flag, which helps notify boaters of whales nearby. Slow down if you see the flag. To get a flag of your own, visit the San Juan Marine Resources Committee’s Web site
  • Turning off fish finders and/or depth sounders if you see southern residents in the distance.  
  • Helping promote safe waters for people and orcas. Report violations on the Be Whale Wise Web site. 

For more information about Be Whale Wise regulations, visit bewhalewise.org

Navigating on Washington Waters 

Safe navigation is the responsibility of all boaters. Even though no vessel will have absolute right-of-way over other boats, here are three basic rules that every operator should know and follow: 

  • Practice good seamanship. 
  • Maintain a safe speed and distance. 
  • Keep a sharp lookout. 

Remember, it’s illegal to obstruct navigation by doing any of the following: 

  • Anchoring in the traveled part of a river or channel so that other vessels are interfered with or prevented from passing through. 
  • Operating any vessel in a way that it will interfere with the safe navigation of other vessels. 
  • Mooring or attaching to a buoy (other than a mooring buoy), beacon, light, or any other navigational aid placed by authorities on public waters. 
  • Moving, displacing, tampering with, damaging, or destroying any navigational aid. 

Prevent Pollution 

Spilling oil or a hazardous substance into state waters is illegal. Polluters may be fined up to $10,000 for each violation or $100,000 for each day the oil poses a risk to the environment, or even more if the spill was intentional.  

Don’t Transport Nuisance Species 

Washington State law prohibits transport of any water-based, non-native plants and creatures on any boat, trailer, fishing gear, or bait well. If found, law enforcement may stop you and require you to clean your vessel or gear. 

What You Can Do 

  • Remove all visible aquatic plants and animals from your boat, motor, trailer, and other equipment before leaving the access area. 
  • Always drain live wells and transom wells before leaving the water. 
  • Report sightings online at the Washington Invasive Species Council Web site. 

Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Permits 

Operators of watercraft not registered in Washington State, seaplanes, and commercial transporters of specified vessel types must buy an aquatic invasive species prevention permits to help prevent the spread of invasive species in Washington. 

Permits are valid for 1 year. Purchase them online or from any of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s licensed dealers. 

Registration Documents 

To navigate, operate, employ, or moor your vessel in Washington, you must know the laws and have a title from the Washington Department of Licensing, a registration card, and registration decals, unless your vessel is one of the following: 

  • A canoe, kayak, or not propelled by a motor or sail. 
  • Less than 16 feet in length and has a motor of 10 horsepower or less and you use on non-federal waters only. 
  • Is properly registered by a resident of another state or country who uses Washington waters for 60 days or fewer. 

The registration card (the cutout portion of the Vessel Registration Certificate) must be onboard whenever you use your vessel. 

U.S. Coast Guard Documentation 

Larger recreational vessels owned by U.S. citizens may (at the option of the owner) be documented by the U.S. Coast Guard. Call the Coast Guard at 1-800-799-8362 for more information. Documented vessels also must be registered in Washington but are not required to display the registration number. 

Required Carbon Monoxide Warning Sticker 

By law, any new or used motor vessel, other than a Jet Ski-type personal watercraft, must display a carbon monoxide warning sticker that alerts passengers of the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. 

Warning stickers can be the “Washington State CO” sticker or a Department of Licensing-approved sticker that was installed by previous owners in another state or by the manufacturer. 

If you don’t receive a sticker when you renew or register, contact your local vehicle licensing office. 

Boaters Visiting Washington State 

Visiting boaters may recreate on state waters for up to 60 days without a permit if the vessel is registered in another state or has current U.S. Coast Guard documentation. 

If you plan to be on Washington waters longer, apply for a permit on or before the 60th day of your visit. To get a permit, visit any vehicle licensing office and bring your unexpired state vessel registration and identification from your state. You may renew the permit once for an additional 60 days. When the renewed permit expires, you must either register your boat in Washington or remove your boat from Washington waters. 

For additional information please contact: 

Recreation and Conservation Office
1111 Washington Street S.E. 
Olympia, Washington 98501 

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