New Boating Laws of 2013

By Nicole Palya Wood

Every year states pass new boating laws. Regulations might have changed in your area recently, so take a look at what's new.

Photo of a 2012 Sea-Doo GTX 215 on the water at sunriseWhile all PWC operators and riders must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket, many states are raising the age requirement for mandatory wear of life jackets for children and teenagers on boats, too. (Photo: BRP/Sea Doo)

Whether your vessel of choice is a sailboat, a center-console, or a ski boat, state legislatures have passed laws this year that will affect how you use it. Here's a brief glance at some state law trends from the 2013 legislative sessions that BoatUS has been monitoring, and a prediction of what you may see at your statehouse during 2014.

On The Water, On The Road, Penalties Stiffen

Georgia, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Washington have responded to the number of boating accidents involving alcohol and other drugs by passing laws that aim to make penalties on the water consistent with those on the road. All four states now have set the limit on blood alcohol content at .08 percent rather than .10 percent. The states have increased penalties for boaters who break the state laws and included new penalties for boaters under the influence of inhalants and intoxicants. In Illinois, if you're convicted of BUI twice, or if you refuse to take a sobriety test on the scene of a boating accident, you can lose your automobile driver's license. Both New York and New Jersey introduced bills to increase the penalties for leaving the scene of a boating accident, and in Utah the crime is now a third-degree felony.

"Boaters operating under the influence are one of the leading causes of boating fatalities nationwide," said BoatUS president Margaret Podlich. "The message is clear. If you're impaired, don't take the helm."

Multiple Boardings

Boating under the influence is a threat to safe waters no matter where you boat, but other issues are more regional, such as multiple safety-check boardings where more than one marine patrol operates as is the case in Ohio and Michigan. The Ohio legislature passed the Boater Freedom Act, which should reduce the number of safety stops for boaters on Lake Erie. Local marine divisions of law enforcement now must have reasonable suspicion that a boater is in violation of a state or local boating law in order to stop and board the vessel.

Weight & Wakes

Overloading seemed to be a recurring theme, with Illinois passing a law that makes those being towed behind the boat count toward the boat's weight capacity limit. Maryland passed a regulation that requires the weight of water contained in ballast tanks used for watersports to be counted against the weight capacity of the vessel, and another requires wakesurfers to keep their boats at least 200 feet from shore, docks, other marine structures, and swimmers.

Life Jackets & Teens

While it may be tough to get teens to wear their life jackets, it's the law in many states and becoming more common as states raise the age requirement for mandatory wear. In Georgia, any boater under 13 years of age is now required to wear a life jacket while under way, putting the Georgia state law in line with U.S. Coast Guard recommendations. Virginia and Wisconsin are the only states that don't require children to be in life jackets while under way. Virginia introduced a bill requiring life jacket wear for children, and California looked at requiring children under 12 to wear life jackets on docks, but neither measure passed.

Boat-Friendlier Taxes

Kansas boaters can now keep their boats in Kansas and pay a personal-property tax rate similar to that of surrounding states. Gov. Brownback signed a law that will reduce personal-property tax rates on boats from 30 percent to 11 percent in 2014 and then down to five percent of assessed value by 2015. For those boating in Connecticut, you can now stay longer without worrying about a tax assessment. The state passed a law that allows you to keep your boat there between October 1 and May 31 without having to pay sales and use tax on it, allowing cruisers another option for mooring, haulout, or repair. Washington introduced a bill that would have increased the 60-day limit vessels could stay in their waters before being subject to sales and use tax, but the measure hasn't passed.

Getting Smart On The Water

Georgia passed a boater-safety course requirement for all boat operators in the Peach State who were born after January 1, 1998. The bill allows those boaters to take any NASBLA-approved course, including the BoatUS online boating safety course, which is free of charge. Find it at

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a mandatory boater safety education law that goes into effect in 2014 and requires all those born after May 1, 1996, to obtain a boater safety certificate. The law also gives the State Commissioner of Parks and Recreation the ability to approve an online course option. In 2012, Suffolk County, New York, passed a law that required all Suffolk County resident boaters 18 and older to take a boater safety course by November 6, 2013. The BoatUS free online course will satisfy this requirement. Preexisting requirements for personal watercraft operators in Suffolk County and throughout New York remain in effect.

Fuel For Thought

Boaters in Florida may now find it a bit easier to obtain ethanol-free gas at roadside pumps. In June, Governor Scott repealed a law, which had, until recently, mandated Florida gasoline to have at least 10 percent ethanol. Meanwhile, ethanol was a focal point in Maine as the statehouse debated eliminating corn-based ethanol from their gasoline supply. The bill package didn't pass but will likely re-emerge during the next session as the Renewable Fuel Standard gets debated on the national level.

The Cost of Dredging

Sequestration and low water levels in the Great Lakes have forced states to think outside the box when trying to conduct the dredging necessary to maintain channels and waterways. In Michigan, Governor Snyder signed a bill that invested $20.9 million into dredging 58 public bays and harbors last summer. The shallow-draft inlets of North Carolina were also a concern for the Tar Heel State. BoatUS worked with the North Carolina legislature to retool a bill that would have placed the cost of dredging shallow-draft inlets squarely on the shoulders of recreational boat owners through a drastic registration fee hike. Instead, commercial boaters will pay into the dredging fund and a higher percentage of fees already allocated through the state gas tax will be set aside.

2014 Forecast

States will continue to leave no stone unturned in their pursuit to find the necessary funds to keep waterways safe and navigable. States that haven't raised their boater registration or titling fees recently may look to raise revenue for projects once maintained by the now underfunded Army Corps of Engineers by increasing these fees. This will be particularly true for states maintaining large dredging projects, or those that have experienced record-low water levels over the last few summers.

Boating-law administrators in charge of keeping the peace on the water may look to align penalties for boating under the influence, and leaving the scene of a boating accident with those of roadway violations. Additionally, some states will look at penalizing or removing road driving rights for those who are repeat offenders of BUI laws.

As watersports grow and wake heights with them, states will attempt to keep both waterfront landowners and boat owners with ballasted boats happy by setting buffer zones between the two. Watersport and leisure boats that pull towables will also need to monitor new laws that will count the weight of ballast tanks or riders on towables toward the total weight capacity assigned to safely operate your boat.

With increased awareness of Electric Shock Drowning (ESD), more states may seek to address this problem by mandating ground-fault interrupters for docks. ESD occurs in fresh water when alternating current (AC) leaks from boats or docks and creates an electrical field where people are swimming.

Very small amounts of electrical current can cause heart fibrillation or paralyze swimmers, resulting in drowning. For more information on ESD, go to 

Nicole Palya Wood is a member of our BoatUS government affairs team.

— Published: December 2013

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