Boating Safety Blog
Disclaimer:   I am not a spokesperson for the US Coast Guard. For an official interpretation of regulations you must contact the US Coast Guard or other organization referenced..   More..... 

Boating Safety

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Safety Enforcement: How are these safety laws enforced?

On a previous page, many of the safety requirements were listed.  Some of these are Federal Requirements, and some are state requirements. Some are both Federal and state. Who enforces these? 

U. S. Coast Guard:

The lead agency for boating safety in the United States is the Coast Guard.  The Coast Guard Boating Safety program is divided into three categories, education, engineering (standards for boats), and enforcement.

Enforcement consists primarily of doing boardings.  The Coast Guard may stop your boat, come aboard and check for safety equipment. I have created a pdf file that explains the history and authority behind this.  See Boardings

To put it as brief as possible, the US Coast Guard has authority to stop and board any vessel on US waters, without a warrant or even probable cause, and to inspect that vessel, its safety equipment and personnel to determine compliance with Federal Laws and regulations.

However, it is Coast Guard policy, that for routine safety boardings they will not intrude into private areas on recreational boats, unless there is some probable cause to believe that there is good reason to do so.  But be aware that they do have this authority. 

Boardings a re a very controversial subject in the boating community: See this article By Clark Beek:


A  boarding will procede thus:  the Coast Guard boat will come along side and direct you to stop (conditions permitting) and a Coast Guard Petty Officer will come aboard your boat. They will ask for your registration (or documentation on big boats) and check all your safety equipment. They will also observe you to make sure you are sober.  If you have been drinking you will get a sobriety test (a breathalyzer).  If you are above the allowed level (.08), someone who is sober will have to take over operating your boat and you will be cited.  If you are seriously drunk you might be arrested. If all is ok they will say goodbye and leave.

These boardings usually have no consequences if you have all the required safety equipment in good serviceable equipment, are sober, and in compliance with applicable laws.  If there is a violation you will get a citation (a boarding report) which may only be a warning to fix the problem, or depending on how serious it is, a fine. All   instructions on how to resolve it will be on the boarding report.

Terminating A voyage:

Also the Coast Guard has the authority to terminate a voyage if there is a serious violation.  Not having lifejackets or fire extinguishers is a serious violation. In this case you will be directed to return to shore until the discrepancy is corrected. Then you may go on your way.

This does not give a boarding officer the right to be rude, act like storm troopers or treat people badly.  However, they are law enforcement officers, and like any law enforcement situation, how it goes down is highly dependent on how both parties present themselves.  If you are friendly they will be too, and the whole thing will be over in five minutes and you can go on your way.   If you are hostile they will definitely not be friendly.  However, If you feel you were treated badly, there is a process to file a complaint which will go to a much higher level of the Coast Guard, and be thorughly investigated.

There is also a law termed a Manifestly Unsafe Voyage.  This has nothing to do with your abilities (unless you are drunk, and then you have even more problems). It is solely dependent on the boat.  However, this is a determination that can only be made at the District Commander level (usually an Admiral).  Someone will be assigned to inspect the vessel. If it is found to be unsafe, then the District Commander can direct the local Coast Guard to impound the boat until the conditions are corrected, or the vessel is disposed of by the owner. Manifestly Unsafe Voyage decisons are very rare.

Voluntary Vessel Safety Checks;

Do not confuse these boardings by regular Coast Guard personnel with vessel safey checks, by Coast Guard Auxiliary.  Coast Guard Auxiliary have no law enforcement authority and cannot do boardings. (However, a regular Coast Guard boarding officer may use an auxiliary vessel as transport to do a boarding)   They may ask if you want a voluntary safety check and you can say yes or no. If you say yes and they find everything is good they will give you a sticker to put on the boat to show you passed. If you have the sticker displayed, when seen by Coast Guard or marine law enforcement they may just pass you by. (They don't have to, but why waste their time). If they find something wrong or missing they will tell you and you won't get a sticker to put on your boat, but there is no fine or penalty. Just fix it and they will give you the sticker.

Vessel Safety Checks can also be performed by members of the United States Power Squadron. USPS (not to be confused with the US Postal Service) is an independent boating Safety organization, and is actually older than the US Coast Guard Auxiliary.  Through an agreement with the US Coast Guard, they can do safety checks and award the stickers.  For more about the Power Squadron;

Local and State Law Enforcement:

All U. S. States and territories have some form of marine law enforcement.  In fact in the last 30 years most of the boating safety enforcement has been handed over to state and local law enforcement.  Each state differs slightly on how these agencies may do safety checks, but all do have some means of checking safety equipment, boater education cards, drunk operators,  etc.  You will be more likely to encounter these officers on lakes and rivers than the Coast Guard, especially on lakes and rivers that have no Federal jursidiction.

The procedure is much the same though. They will come alongside, direct you to stop (conditions permitting) and ask for your boat registration, ID, and examine your safety equipment.  They will check to make sure the boat operator is sober. They may or may not actually board you depending on state laws. Some allow it, some don't.  You may also encounter these officers at a boat ramp.  Usually these boardings last only a few minutes and you can get on with whatever you were doing.  To find out the laws in your state, check with your state boating law administrator for state requirements.


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