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For Boaters, Fine Lines Come With State Borders

Before you navigate your boat from one state's waters to the next, be sure you know whether or not you need a boater education certificate.

Virginia sign

Photo by Michelle Lotker

Congratulations! Your granddaughter just passed your state's mandatory boater education course with flying colors — and she's got the state-issued card to prove it. Now look at this teenager's confidence as she takes the helm of your 30-foot cruiser. Her practical boat-handling skills are a joy to watch and a credit to you. The card, however, is an official recognition of her dedication to safe boating and she's justifiably proud of it.

But what's that in the water dead ahead? Uh, oh. It's the state line and it's lying squarely across your course. No, you can't see it but you know it's there. However, do you know whether or not the marine police on the other side of the line will accept her boater education card? Or will you need to take the helm once you've entered the other state's waters?

Those are fair questions as 46 states now have some form of mandatory education requirement to operate a boat. The details — boat size, type, horsepower, operator age — vary from state to state, but it's important to know that not all states accept out-ofstate boater education certification for visitors afloat.

The Roots Of Reciprocity

With BoatUS as its champion in Congress, the Federal Boating Safety Act of 1971 instituted a wide range of protections for the boating consumer. It established manufacturing standards for boatbuilders, a mandatory boat defect notification and product recall process, and paved the way for the U.S. Coast Guard to create the Office of Boating Safety. Among such provisions that put boating on a regulatory par with other industries, the landmark law also promoted uniformity in state regulations as well as reciprocity among them, and at the federal level it created minimum requirements for boat safety equipment.

On July 1, 1987, Maryland put the nation's first mandatory boater education law into effect. Since then, state legislatures have passed additional mandatory boater education laws. And that, in the words of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), has added "to the complexity and confusion for the average boater attempting to answer the question: 'Will the boating safety course certificate issued by my state be accepted in other states?'" (NASBLA, July 8, 2009, Policy Position on Reciprocity).

In March of 2008, NASBLA surveyed its membership on the question of reciprocity and determined that 96 percent of states accept other states' certificates or courses for boating safety. Only five or six states place limitations on reciprocity because they require proctored examinations, have different minimum age requirements, or have some other restrictions on boat operation. Fair enough, but the devil, as they say, is usually lurking in the details.

Reciprocity Is Where You Find It

When it comes to boater education requirements, the details can vary widely among states, so boaters who may be traveling out of their home waters — either afloat or with boat on trailer — should be sure to review the education requirements in the state or states on their itineraries.

Consider these hypothetical scenarios based on a BoatUS Government Affairs Department review of state requirements:

Jim: Ohio resident, age 21
Boat: Bass boat on trailer, 90hp outboard
Education: To operate a boat of more than 10hp, Ohio requires anyone born on or after January 1, 1982 to pass its Boater Safety Course, which is approved by NASBLA.

Question: Jim passed the Ohio course five years ago and now he wants to trailer his boat to Florida for a two-week fishing vacation. Will Florida honor Jim's Ohio certification?
Answer: Yes. To operate a boat with a motor over 10hp, Florida requires anyone born after January 1, 1988, including visitors, to have in their possession proof of passing a NASBLA-approved safety course. Thus, Florida honors Ohio's certificate and Jim need take no further action (except to be sure he has his card with him).

Trudy: Maine resident, age 68
Boat: 46-foot trawler
Education: Maine does not have a mandatory boater education requirement. Trudy passed a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary basic boating course 30 years ago but doesn't have any proof of successfully passing the course.

Question: Trudy plans to cruise to Florida for the winter. Will she be in compliance with the laws of the 14 states she'll pass through?
Answer: Each state's education requirements are a little different from the next, and New Hampshire and New Jersey pose the greatest challenges for Trudy. New Hampshire requires anyone who operates a boat over 25hp on its waters to have a NASBLA-approved boating certificate. New Jersey, on the other hand, allows operation in its waters for up to 90 days, but only if the operator possesses a boating safety certificate from his or her own state of residence (whether or not you need it at home). So despite the fact that Maine has no boater education requirement, Trudy needs to find another way to comply with the laws of these two states, or perhaps bypass their waters altogether.

The Esperanza Family: California residents
Boat: Inboard ski boat on trailer
Education: California has no mandatory education requirement.

Question: The Esperanzas plan to trailer their boat to Oregon for the summer. What must they do to comply with Oregon laws?
Answer: If they plan to stay longer than 60 days, each family member who operates the boat will need to take a course. Non-residents may operate a boat in Oregon waters for up to 60 days without a boater education card. Beyond 60 days, when operating a boat over 10 hp, operators of all ages must possess a NASBLA-approved boater education card.

Nevin: New Jersey resident, age 45
Boat: 35-foot cabin cruiser
Education: New Jersey requires boaters to pass a boater safety education course that is approved by the state. However, not all courses approved by New Jersey are NASBLA-approved.

Question: Nevin completed the New Jersey course, so he's in compliance with state law. However, he regularly cruises on the Delaware River, sailing less than half a mile to visit Philadelphia. Is he in compliance with Pennsylvania law?
Answer: No. While in Pennsylvania waters, Nevin could be cited for violation of state law because Pennsylvania requires boat operators to possess proof of successfully completing a NASBLA-approved course. Unfortunately, although they're neighboring states, Pennsylvania doesn't recognize the New Jersey certificate because it's not NASBLA-approved.

Let The Boater Beware

The bottom line in mandatory boater education reciprocity is: Know before you go. In many cases, a boater education certificate, issued by your home state and bearing the NASBLA seal, will satisfy the requirements of the state you're visiting, either in your own boat or when operating a friend's boat there. (Most states have waivers or short tests available for operators of rented or chartered boats.)

As lawmakers are convened in many state capitals, boater education bills or amendments to existing education laws may be considered. BoatUS is working to ensure that states make it convenient to obtain boater education. Reciprocity among states is a priority, so if you hear of boater education legislation being proposed in your state — or any legislation that could affect boating — please contact the BoatUS Government Affairs Dept.

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BoatUS Editors

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Award-winning BoatUS Magazine is the official publication of Boat Owners Association of The United States. The magazine provides boating skills, DIY maintenance, safety, news and more from top experts.