California Boating Laws

On this page, you’ll find information and links about boating in California. The use of boats is regulated by the California State Parks, Divisions of Boating and Waterways (DBW).  The DBW has a webpage with links to boating law.  The regulations are codified in the CA Harbors and Navigation Code.  There are also relevant regulations in the California’s Vehicle Code, Penal Code, and Code of Regulations. Some counties, cities, and district also have ordinances with boating restrictions. Some of the more common requirements relate to:

Age restrictions: no person under the age of 16 may operate a motorboat of more than 15 horsepower except:

  1. Sailboats that do not exceed 30 feet in length
  2. Dinghies used directly between a moored boat and the shore (or between two moored boats).
  3. Children, ages 12 – 15, under the supervision of an adult, 18 years of age or older.

Carbon monoxide: it’s unlawful to operate the motor or generator when a person is:

  1. Teak surfing
  2. Platform dragging
  3. Body-surfing behind the vessel
  4. On or holding onto the platform, swim deck, swim step or swim ladder except for a brief period of time when a person is assisting with the docking or departing or entering/exiting the vessel, or while engaged in law enforcement or emergency rescure.

Equipment: varies depending on boat length and motor type.  In general, for canoes, kayaks and boats less than 16 feet, the following equipment is required:

  1. Lights: navigation lights must be on between sunset and sunrise, and during times of restricted visibility (red and green side lights plus either a masthead forward light and stern light or a 360 degree all0round stern light).
  2. Life-jacket: a Type I, II, III or V Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person, which is available and fits (all children under 13 must wear a life jacket)

Hit-and-run: conviction may result in fine of up to $10,000 and/or up to four years in prison, or an additional five years for serious injury or death.  If involved in an accident resulting in injury, death, or disappearance, (1) give the appropriate information others involved at the scene or a peace officer and/or (2) provide any reasonable assistance to any injured person

Intoxication: It’s unlawful to operate a vessel under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  The legal limit is 0.08 percent or more, but 0.05 to 0.08 % may be used with other evidence to determine intoxication.  A conviction could result in a fine up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail.  Warning shot!!! The designated driver theory is inapplicable.

Operation: it’s unlawful to operate a vessel in a negligent or reckless manner that endangers life, limb, or property.

Peace officers: state, city, local, Harbor District peace officers are empowered to enforce boating laws.  They can order you to shore or your vessel to the nearest safe moorage.

Registration: all vessels must be registered and numbered except:

  1. Boats propelled manually
  2. Boats eight feet or less in length propelled solely by sail
  3. Certain vessels owned by public agencies
  4. Vessels documented by the Coast Guard
  5. Foreign vessels
  6. Ship’s lifeboats used solely for lifesaving purposes
  7. Vessels having valid registration in the state of principal use and not remaining in California over 90 consecutive days
  8. Sailboards

Speed: the speed limit is five miles per hour when:

  1. Within 100 feet of a bather
  2. Within 200 feet of a bathing beach, swimming float, diving platform, diving lifeline, passenger landing being used, or landing where boats are tied up

Trailering: it’s unlawful to tow a trailered vessel with a passenger except when launching or taking out.

Two-stroke engines: while high emission two-stroke enggines are not prohibited by the State, there are a few city, county or district ordinances to protect drinking water reservoirs.

Violations: results in court-ordered boater safety course


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