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Sailing and Boating in the USA

Information on the boat license and sailing permit requirements in the USA, including details of sailing associations…

The USA’s geography makes boating a popular activity. Twenty-two states have sea coasts, eight border the Great Lakes and all are dotted with rivers and lakes.

The United States Coast Guard oversees boating activities in the USA and its territorial waters. Its website provides access to a wealth of information, including vessel documentation and advice for safe boating.

Each state, however, has its own boating laws and regulations. State agencies also provide testing and safety courses.

  • For the US Coast Guard’s guide to state laws: Click here
Navigation Rules

The US Coast Guard provides an online guide to standard navigation rules. As they have the same purpose as the rules for safe driving, they are called “the rules of the road.” The US Coast Guard instructs that if these basic rules are followed by boaters, most accidents could be prevented.

The US Coast Guard Aids to Navigation System provides an overview of the rules. It features diagrams illustrating how to determine which boat has the right of way, an illustrated guide to navigation markers and systems, rules for night boating and a guide to life jackets.

Emergencies and Accidents

A marine radio is the recommended equipment to have on hand should a boating emergency occur.  Experts recommend marine radios for all craft, including kayaks and canoes.

The marine radio should be kept on and tuned to VHF Channel 16. They are waterproof and help rescue crews to locate a vessel through the radio transmission. As a back-up form of communication, cellphones may also be used to alert emergency officials by calling 911.

  • For guidance on how to handle an emergency: Click here
Float Plans

The US Coast Guard recommends that boaters complete a float plan prior to setting off. A float plan includes detailed information for use in an emergency. The plan is designed to be given to two people, who will notify officials if the boater does not communicate or return from a trip as expected.

Reporting an Accident

Federal law requires that accidents be reported to the appropriate state governing agency. This law takes effect in the following situations:

  • A person’s death
  • Disappearance or injury requiring more than basic first aid
  • Damage to property of at least $2,000 (the figure varies by state)
  • Destruction of the vessel
  • For a copy of a US Coast Guard accident reporting form: Click here
Vessel Documentation

The US Coast Guard provides vessel documentation for commercial and recreational marine vehicles. One purpose of this documentation is to identify an owner’s nationality. Once requirements for documentation are met, a certificate of documentation is issued, which serves as proof of ownership. Documentation is not required for recreational vehicles, but is mandatory for commercial vessels. In some states, this documentation can eliminate the need to register a boat.

The owners of a vessel documented by the US Coast Guard must be US citizens. This requirement also applies to businesses, including corporations and partnerships. If there is shared ownership, at least 51 percent of the vessel must be held by a US citizen or business.

  • For further information, contact the US Coast Guard’s National Vessel Documentation Center: Click here
Importing a Boat

US Customs and Border Protection provides guidelines for importing a boat for personal use.

Proof of ownership is required and the boat must meet Environmental Protection Agency standards. Boats imported for recreational use will most likely be charged a duty fee.

State Boating Laws and Regulations

States set their own laws governing boating activities. These cover topics such as registration, operator licensing, boating education, age requirements for operators, white-water boating and motorboat noise.

  • For the US Coast Guard’s guide to state laws: Click here
Boat Registration and Titling

Most states require mechanically powered boats and sail boats to be registered. Some may accept the US Coast Guard’s vessel documentation, but this is not always the case.

Registering a boat usually includes posting its registration numbers on the forward part of the vessel, on both the port and starboard sides. Boats, including foreign vessels, that are using a state’s waters only temporarily, often do not need to be registered. But once a state is the primary site of usage for a boat, most states will require registration.

Some states also require that a boat be titled as a method of documenting its ownership.

  • For more information on each state’s rules and procedures for boat registration and titling: Click here

If a boat was not purchased in a particular state, the listed procedures will instruct how to register and/or title a boat being brought into the state.

Operator Licensing

Most states do not require operator licensing for driving or sailing a boat.

With few exceptions, however, states do require operators to successfully complete a boating education course. For a guide to each state’s requirements: Click here

Trailering and Mooring

Trailering boats is a common practice in the USA. Rather than keeping a boat moored at one location, some owners choose to keep their boats at home and transport them to the body of water via a trailer.

Boats too large to routinely transport via a trailer are usually moored at a marina or yacht club. An internet search on marinas or yacht clubs at which a boat can be moored will yield numerous results, often listed by state and/or city.

Sailing Certification

The American Sailing Association is a comprehensive resource for sailing instruction and certification, as well as for links to sailing clubs. The association also provides training for an international proficiency certificate.

Boating and Sailing Organizations
  • The United States Power Squadrons is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting safe boating. As well as providing links to each state’s boating website, the organization also conducts educational programs, coordinates with the US Coast Guard in conducting vessel safety checks and offers social activities for boaters.
  • The BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water offers online study guides on subjects such as equipment, trip planning, navigation and maneuvering, environmental responsibility and emergency preparedness.
  • The American Boating Association is a fee-based membership organization that supplies information and services for boaters, including its own magazine.
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