Boating Safety Q&As

Safety Officer
Published May 21, 2015
Below are some frequently asked questions of the United States Coast Guard about boating. Information reminders for seasoned boaters and those who may be new to boating or considering purchasing a boat.

Q: What life jackets are required to be carried on my recreational boat?
A: In general, Federal law requires that you must have a Coast Guard-approved wearable, life jacket (Type I, II, or III) for each person onboard your vessel. In addition, boats greater than 16 feet in length must carry a Coast Guard-approved throwable device (Type IV). A throwable device is not required on canoes or kayaks regardless of length. For more information on exemptions and the proper use of life jackets, see A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats.

Q: Who can wear a Coast Guard-approved inflatable Life Jacket?
A: Currently only persons 16 years of age and older may wear an inflatable-only life jacket.

Q: Does the Coast Guard approve boating safety courses?
A: No.

Q: If I lose my boating safety certificate, how do I obtain a replacement?
A: You should contact the organization that issued the certificate and request a replacement card. You need to provide the date and location where you took the course. If no records are found, you may have to take the course over or see if that organization will allow you to retake the final exam.

Q: Is my boating safety certificate valid to operate a boat in another state?
A: The certificates are recognized by most states, which extend reciprocity as long as the issued boating safety certificate meets National Standards. This reciprocity applies to operators of powerboats, but not in all states to operators of Personal Watercraft (PWC). Check the boating laws in the state you plan to visit prior to operating a boat or PWC there. Visit to find state-specific laws and regulations, as well as contact information for the boating authority in each state and territory.

Q: How do I dispose of expired pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals (VDS), i.e. marine flares?
A: The disposal of expired pyrotechnic devices should be done in accordance with local county and state hazardous waste regulations. Please check with these local authorities to obtain the correct disposal procedures.

Q: How do I register my Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or submit an updated registration form?
A: You may register online (preferred) at You may also mail the signed registration form to:

Suitland Road Suitland, MD 20746
or send it by Fax at Tel: 301-817-4565

Q: What Visual Distress Signals must I carry on my boat?
A: Visual distress signals are required to be carried onboard vessels operating on the Great Lakes, High Seas, Territorial Seas and connecting waters seaward of a point where the entrance exceeds 2 nautical miles, with certain exceptions. Devices carried can include either pyrotechnic devices: orange smoke (day), hand-held red flare (day/night), red parachute flare (day/night), and red star shell (day/night), or non-pyrotechnic devices: orange distress flag (day), and auto SOS lantern (night). Vessels must carry at least 3 day and 3 night, or 3 day/night flares if carrying pyrotechnic devices; or carry 1 day and 1 night if non-pyrotechnic devices; or any combination of devices that meet these requirements. Examples of possible combinations are; 1) a distress lantern and 3 orange smoke, or 2) the orange distress flag and a distress lantern, or 3) 3 day/night flares. For more information on exemptions and proper use of visual distress signals, see A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats.

Q: How can I find a boating safety course offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary?
A: Visit the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary website to locate a course offered near you:

Q: How can I find a boating safety course that is offered by the U.S. Power Squadrons?
A: Visit the United States Power Squadrons? website to find a course offered near you:

Q: What is a Vessel Safety Check?
A: A Vessel Safety Check (VSC) is a courtesy examination of your boat (vessel) to verify the presence and condition of certain safety equipment required by state and federal regulations. The volunteer VSC examiner may also make recommendations and discuss safety issues that can make you a safer boater. No citations will be given if the boat does not pass. The examiner will supply you with a copy of the evaluation so that you may follow up with any recommendations. Vessels that pass the examination will be able to display the distinctive VSC decal. The decal does not exempt boaters from law enforcement boarding but indicates to boarding officers that the boat has been examined and found to be in compliance with safety equipment regulations.

Q: What agency is responsible for performing a Vessel Safety Check?
A: The volunteer Vessel Examiner is a trained specialist and a member of either the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons, or in some cases state volunteer examiners.

Q: How can I get my recreational vessel inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary?
A: Visit the Vessel Safety Check website at: Click on the tab labeled "I want a VSC." Enter your 5-digit ZIP Code and the program will search the database to locate examiners closest to your location.

Q: How do I fill out and file a Float Plan?
A: Using the new USCG Float Plan can save lives and it’s offered free from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Visit and follow the instructions. Once you have completed the form, print it and leave it with a friend or relative before getting underway.

Q: How can I find boating laws applicable to my state?
A: Visit and check the state-by-state reference guide, or contact your state’s boating authority.

Q: While operating my recreational boat, what is the prescribed distance for me to stay away from military, cruise lines and commercial ships?
A: Boaters should keep their distance from all military, cruise line, or commercial shipping. Do not approach within 100 yards, and slow to minimum speed within 500 yards of any U.S. naval vessel. Violators of the Naval Vessel Protection Zone could face six years in prison and a $250,000 fine, not to mention a quick and possibly severe response from the vessel itself. Approaching commercial vessels may result in an immediate boarding by the Coast Guard.

Q: What is teak surfing?
A: Teak surfing is performed by a person hanging onto the swim platform (often made of teak wood) at the back of a boat while the boat is moving forward. Often swimmers will let go of the platform and body surf on the boat's wake. Although teak surfing is not illegal in some states, it is extremely dangerous due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and sudden loss of consciousness resulting in death. The United States Coast Guard advises boaters not to teak surf. Please help spread this safety message and discourage teak surfing.

Q: What are the specific size-criteria for my boat to be Coast Guard documented?
A: A vessel must measure at least five net tons and, with the exception of certain oil spill response vessels, must be wholly owned by a citizen of the U.S. Net tonnage is a measure of a vessel's volume. It should not be confused with the vessel's weight, which may also be expressed in tons. Most vessels more than 25 feet in length will measure five net tons or more. For information about how tonnage is determined, including a web-based interactive form that calculates tonnages, visit the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Center's web site at the Marine Safety Center's Tonnage Page.

Q: How do I document my vessel?
A: Visit the following website: It will provide you with all of the information you will need to document your vessel. You can download all necessary forms.

Q: How do I order a copy of the Navigation Rules (Rules of the Road)?
A: To order a copy of the Navigation Rules - Commandant's Instruction M16672.2E, call the Government Printing Office at (202) 512-1800 and provide the GPO stock number (050-012-00407-2). The GPO will advise you of the required fee.

Q: Is it required to have registration numbers on a 12-foot jon boat with a 3 HP gasoline motor?
A: In general, all recreational vessels that are propelled by machinery must be registered in the state of their principal use. The exceptions are:
Foreign vessels temporarily using waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction;
Military or public vessels of the United States, except recreational-type public vessels;
A vessel whose owner is a State or subdivision thereof, which is used principally for governmental purposes, and which is clearly identifiable as such; Ships' lifeboats; and vessel which has or is required to have a valid marine document as a vessel of the United States. Contact your state boating agency for questions concerning numbering and titling as numbering laws vary somewhat from state to state.

Q: When should I energize or display my navigation lights?
A: Navigation lights are to be energized or displayed, from sunset to sunrise and when operating in or near areas of restricted visibility (fog, snow, heavy rain, etc).

Q: What are the federal regulations for life jacket wear for children?
A: On a vessel that is underway, children under 13 years of age must wear an appropriate U.S. Coast Guard-approved wearable life jacket unless they are: Below deck, or Within an enclosed cabin. If a state has established a child life jacket wear requirement that differs from the Coast Guard requirement, the state requirement will be applicable on waters subject to that state's jurisdiction. Contact your state boating authority for more information.

Q: Do I need a horn on my boat?
A: Navigation Rules require sound signals to be made under certain circumstances, such as meeting, crossing, and overtaking other vessels. Recreational vessels are also required to use sound signals during periods of reduced visibility and while at anchor. See A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats for the types of sound producing devices required for your specific vessel. A vessel of less than 39.4 feet (12 meters) must, at a a minimum, have some means of making an efficient sound signal – i.e., handheld air horn, athletic whistle, installed horn, etc. A human voice/sound is not acceptable. A vessel 39.4 feet (12 meters) or greater, must have a sound signaling appliance capable of producing an efficient sound signal, audible for ½ mile, with a 4 to 6 second duration.