It's a big country, but when it comes to boating, each state or territory sets its own requirements. Here's what you need to know about 'reciprocity'.
You've tested your trailer lights, packed the fishing rods, checked all the boat's mechanical and safety gear, inspected the life jackets, and downloaded the local charts. Just when you go to check the last item off your prevacation checklist, a question dawns on you, "Can I even use the boat legally in the state I'm heading to?"
If you've ever boated out of state, you may already know that the answer depends on many factors including the state you're visiting, your age, your boating education, vessel type, engine size, whether you rent or own the boat, how long you're staying, and if you want to engage in towed watersports.
First things first — your boating education certification is not a license, which can be suspended or revoked. It allows you to operate certain watercraft in the waters of the state it was issued by. But many states practice "reciprocity," meaning a valid certification in one state is accepted in another state (typically with length of time restrictions). But if you're certified to operate a boat in Florida, can you throttle up in California? Or Connecticut?
This is a challenge that the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) education directors, Pam Dillon and Mark Chanski, know well. "We often hear people say 'Well, why isn't it just one size fits all?'" says Dillon. "It's because we have 56 different states and territories that see things differently, and that's their right."
NASBLA represents boating authorities of all states and territories and works to set and maintain boating education standards across the country. Fortunately, there are people like Dillon and Chanski who work to streamline requirements and help boaters access the information they need for boating outside their home state. "NASBLA's role is to review the content of the courses and make sure it covers the requirements that are in the American National Standard," Dillon says. Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to ensure that you're boating on the right side of the law.
1. Take a state and NASBLA-approved boating course. "If you're an adult boater visiting another state, and if you have a boater education card with the NASBLA-approved logo on it, you should be good to go," said Dillon. "I say 'should' because there may be some local restrictions, like with personal watercraft (PWC) you may need an additional endorsement."
It's important to know that not all the available courses meet the state's educational requirements or are NASBLA-approved.
Carefully research any course before signing up because many courses offered won't be recognized by your home state or the states you visit. "It's important to know that not all the available courses meet the state's educational requirements or are NASBLA-approved," Chanski says. "People take these classes, spend lots of time and money, and then the state will say, 'Sorry, we don't take that course.' If you're going to be traveling, I'd suggest that people see what courses are accepted in that area, then take those courses if they don't already have them."
In addition to finding a state-approved course, you'll want a course diploma or boating card that bears the NASBLA logo, indicating that the course you took was NASBLA-approved. "Fortunately, every state does have a course that has been reviewed, verified, and approved by NASBLA," says Dillon, "It's important for the boater to look for that NASBLA-approved course option. Some of these are free. BoatUS Foundation has a great free course that is recognized in most states." (Find your state-approved course at BoatUS.org/Free.)
2. Check state requirements on NASBLA.org before you go. While many states will accept a NASBLA-approved card, it's important to check state requirements before departure. Some states require special towing endorsements for activities like water skiing, or have different education requirements for PWCs. Many states have requirements that vary based on vessel type or engine size. In addition, there may be restrictions for youth.
"Adult age is defined state-to-state," said Dillon, "In some states, a 14-year-old can operate a PWC. In another, they might have to be 16." Fortunately, you can quickly look up state-specific requirements on NASBLA's interactive "Education Requirements by State" Dashboard.
3. Contact the local agency. NASBLA's Dashboard lists boat operator requirements by state, but there may be other considerations, like local interpretation of policies and requirements unique to a boater's individual situation. For instance, there may be a state-to-state agreement in place that affords you special privileges (e.g., a visitor to Connecticut from New Jersey with a New Jersey-issued boating certificate would not be able to operate a PWC, but a visitor from Rhode Island with a Rhode Island boating certificate would be able to operate one.)
In some instances, a NASBLA state-issued certificate may not meet another state's requirements. "I talk to people who took a NASBLA-approved course in Florida," Chanski says, "but from the Connecticut standpoint, they didn't learn about Connecticut laws, so Connecticut won't accept that [course]."
Lastly, the reciprocity period allowed for operating on an out-of-state boating card varies from state to state and can range anywhere from zero to 90 days.
"The default answer is always to contact the state agency, or check their website and ask the question," says Dillon. "NASBLA's website summarizes these very complex pieces of state language, and it's always best that someone go and talk to the source directly with their specific circumstance, their type of boat, their certificate, and the waterway they're talking about."
NASBLA lists contact information for each state boating authority on its website.
4. Always carry your boating education card on the boat. Not carrying your boating education card when you're required to can result in a fine. For example, in Connecticut it's $120. "Some states have a grace period," says Dillon, "If you don't have a card with you, then you have three days to provide a copy of that card. In other states you've got to have it or you've got to have it displayed."
5. Stay abreast of changes in requirements. It's important to be aware of changing education and operating requirements in the states you visit. For instance, states such as California and New York are moving toward required boating education for all boaters. Just recently, in August 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that will require all operators of motorized watercraft to complete a state-approved boating course by 2025.
Taking the time to know state requirements before you travel will not only keep you boating safely and legally, it will also give you additional peace of mind as you explore your next cruising destination.