It's estimated that 4 million recreational boaters enjoy the waterways of California every year. Every one of them must adhere to certain rules. If you're thinking of buying a boat or already own one, you should stay up-to-date on the California boating laws that cover the registration of a vessel, any necessary licenses or safety education requirements, the consumption of alcohol, and what to do if an accident happens.
California Boating Laws: Registration
Any sail-powered vessel over 8 feet in length and every motor-driven vessel used in the waters of California must be registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles. This includes any vessel used or moored on private lakes. To register a vessel for the first time, you must complete an Application for Vessel Certificate of Number and deliver it by hand or mail to California Department of Motor Vehicles. Proof of ownership must also be provided. As of December 2019, the fee to register and title a new vessel is $60.
California Boating Laws: Licenses
A license isn't necessary to operate a boat in California, but the law prohibits anyone under the age of 16 from operating a motorboat of more than 15 horsepower. Someone under the age of 16 may still operate a sailboat that is under 30 feet in length or a vessel used to move between a moored boat and shore or another boat. In either case, if the child is between the ages of 12 and 15, he must be supervised by an adult aged 18 or older.
New California boating laws came into effect in 2018. Under the new laws, all power boaters under the age of 25 must have completed a state-approved boater-safety education course by January 1, 2019. The cost of the course is $10. By 2025, this course will be a legal requirement for boaters of all ages.
Upon successful completion of the boater-safety education course, the operator receives a California Boater Card, which lasts a lifetime.
California Boating Laws: BUI
Boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs (BUI), also known as boating while intoxicated, is forbidden by California law. Intoxication is defined as having a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or greater. BUI is a Class B misdemeanor offense, punishable with a minimum term of confinement of 72 hours.
Because there may be a delay between a person being apprehended and her blood alcohol being tested, the California boating laws for alcohol make certain presumptions regarding her level of intoxication. She may still be presumed to be intoxicated even when her blood alcohol is much lower than 0.08 percent.
California Boating Laws: Accidents
Under certain circumstances, a boating accident on California waters must be reported to the California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways. An accident must be reported if it involves death, disappearance or injury beyond first aid, damage to property amounting to $500 or more, or the complete loss of a vessel, regardless of its value.
A report must be filed within 48 hours if an accident involves 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 if an accident involves a death occurring more than 24 hours after the accident, property damage exceeding $500 or the total loss of a vessel.
California boating laws for life jackets state that every child age 13 or younger who is on a moving recreational vessel of any length must wear an appropriate Coast Guard-approved life jacket. However, the law does not apply to children under 13 years of age who are constrained by a harness tethered to a sailboat, in an enclosed cabin or on a vessel being used in an emergency rescue situation.
- California Legislative Information: California Harbors and Navigation Code, Section 678-678.15, Vessel Operation
- California Legislative Information: California Harbors and Navigation Code, Section 655, Negligence/Boating Under the Influence
- California Legislative Information: California Harbors and Navigation Code, Section 656 et. seq., Accidents
- California Legislative Information: California Harbors and Navigation Code, Section 678 - 678.15, Vessel Operators’ Education and Certification Cards
- State of California Department of Motor Vehicles: Vessel Boat Registration and Information
- California State Park Boating and Waterways: Life Jackets and the Law
- State of California Department of Motor Vehicles: ABCs of California Boating
Claire is a qualified lawyer and specialized in family law before becoming a full-time writer. She has written for many digital publications, including The Washington Post, Forbes, Vice and HealthCentral.