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California Boating Laws

Last updated 11/18/2019

California has beautiful coastlines, lakes, and waterways. When you take to the state's waterways there are important rules that regulate the registration of watercraft, the requirements to operate watercraft, alcohol use by operators, and the responsibilities of those involved in an accident. The following article will help ensure that you and your craft are shipshape and in compliance with California boating laws.

Vessel Titling and Registration

Any sail-powered vessel over eight feet in length and every motor-driven vessel used in the waters of California must be registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Details regarding registration are found in the chart below.

Boating Licenses

California was one of the last states to enact a boater-safety education course requirement into law. A law requiring the development and implementation of a vessel operator card was passed and took effect in 2018. The requirements under these new regulations are discussed in the chart below.

Boating and Alcohol

Boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs (BUI) is prohibited by California law. The chart below contains information about alcohol possession, intoxication, and other issues relating to alcohol and California boating laws.

California Boating Laws: The Basics

Code Sections
  • California Harbors and Navigation Code, Section 678-678.15, Vessel Operation
  • California Harbors and Navigation Code, Section 655, Negligence/Boating Under the Influence;
  • California Harbors and Navigation Code, Section 656 et. seq., Accidents
Age & Education Requirements

California boating laws prohibit anyone under the age of 16 from operating a motorboat of more than 15 horsepower (hp). Those under the age of 16 may still operate:

  • W sailboat that is under 30 feet in length;
  • W vessel used to move between a moored boat and shore or another boat; or
  • Under the supervision of an adult aged 18 or older where the child is between the ages of 12 and 15.

California's new law regarding vessel operation requires that all power boaters under the age of 25 complete a state-approved course by January 1, 2019. By 2025, all boaters will be required to have completed such a course.

In addition to the boater-safety course requirement, California boating laws require boaters born after January 1, 1998, and operating a boat with a 10hp or greater engine to obtain a boating safety certificate.

Boating Under the Influence
  • Boating Under the Influence: Boating while intoxicated is forbidden by California law. Intoxication is defined as having a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or greater. Boating under the influence is a Class B misdemeanor offense, punishable with a minimum term of confinement of 72 hours.
  • Addicts: California boating laws prohibit the operation of any vessel, water skis, aquaplane or any similar device by a person addicted to the use of any drug. There is an exception made for those participating in a state-approved narcotic rehabilitation program.
  • Presumptions: Because blood-alcohol testing may not occur until much later, California boating laws provide for presumptions regarding a person's level of intoxication that take into account the amount of time between the person's apprehension and the administration of a BAC test. These presumptions are rebuttable, but a person may still be presumed to have been intoxicated where they are found to have as little as 0.04 percent BAC.
Boating Accidents

Operators of vessels involved in an accident also have many of the same obligations held by motorists involved in accidents, including the obligation to stay, render assistance, and to provide information to those injured or whose property was damaged.

A boating accident must be reported to the California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways under some circumstances. Accidents must be reported if they involved:

  • death, disappearance, or injury beyond first aid;
  • damage to property exceeding $500; or
  • the complete loss of a vessel, regardless of value.

A report must be filed within 48 hours of an accident involving:

  • a death that occurs within 24 hours of the accident;
  • a person's disappearance; or
  • injury beyond first aid.

A report must be filed within 10 days of an accident involving:

  • a death occurring more than 24 hours after the accident;
  • property damage exceeding $500 or the total loss of a vessel.

Where an accident resulted in the death or disappearance of a person, the vessel operator is also required to inform the law enforcement agency having jurisdiction or the sheriff, unless a peace officer was at the scene of the accident already.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

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Find Out More About California Boating Laws

Whether you are fishing in Lake Tahoe or sailing the Monterey Bay you will need to know your legal responsibilities. If you have been involved in a boating accident, accused of boating under the influence, or have other concerns relating to California boating laws a lawyer's assistance can help answer questions and reduce your risk. Consult with a California boating laws attorney to learn more about California laws and your situation.

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