As more states establish mandatory boater education laws, BoatU.S. continues to urge all 50 states to establish boater education certification programs for skippers
Operator inexperience was the second leading cause of recreational boating accidents, and 74% of boating deaths reported in 2022 were in vessels commanded by skippers with no known operator instruction. These grim statistics are from the most recent annual Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics. Conversely, only 14% of the 636 reported deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally approved boating safety education certificate. That stark percentage gap continues to drive BoatU.S. to advocate for mandatory boating safety education required at the state level before anyone can legally take the helm of a boat powered by more than 10 hp.
“We believe a basic understanding of the rules, regulations, and how to safely operate a powerboat makes the waters safer for everyone,” says David Kennedy, manager of BoatU.S. Government Affairs.
Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, and South Carolina have all recently approved new boater education requirements, leaving just Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, South Dakota, and Wyoming as the only states with no mandatory education requirements to operate any recreational vessel. Let’s take a look at the latest states to enact boater education laws.
Mandatory boater education will be phased in under the bill signed into law last summer. The program will go into effect beginning July 1, 2025, requiring anyone born on or after July 1, 2004, to take a course. By 2028, anyone born on or after July 1, 1987, must pass a course and receive a boater education certificate. This approach will eventually require nearly every boater in Minnesota to complete a boater-education course and obtain a boater-education card before operating a motorized watercraft.
“We’re agnostic on how states implement mandatory boater education,” says Kennedy. “We think everyone on the water should be educated. And it never hurts to brush up.”
Minnesota has 822,450 registered pleasure boats, which ranks it second only behind Florida.
The state had 77 reported boating accidents last year, including 15 boating fatalities, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
As of last August, boaters born on or after July 1, 2007, are required to complete an approved boating safety course before operating a boat with a 10-horsepower or greater motor. The state ranks 10th in the nation with 360,233 registered boats.
“Knowledge of boater safety is not something you pick up unless you really study it,” said state Sen. Chip Campsen in a statement. “We have a lot of folks who do not have any experience, particularly in our oceans and estuaries, and increasingly, we see that this is needed.”
Requires anyone younger than 18 take a boater safety course before they can drive a powerboat. Previously, only those under 16 had to take the course. The new law goes into effect June 1, 2024. Colorado has 71,957 registered boats, ranking 38th in the nation.
Requires anyone born on or after January 1, 1999, complete a boater safety and education course before they can operate a boat with 25-hp or greater motor on inland or territorial waters. Exemptions are made for registered guides (hunting, fishing, and recreational), commercial fishing, daily boat renters, and merchant mariners. Maine has 116,827 registered boats, ranking 31st among the 50 states.
That leaves Massachusetts as an outlier among states in the Northeast with no certification required for adults to operate a powerboat (youth under 12 require adult supervision). But that could change this year. A bill working its way through the state legislature would require boaters 12 or older to have a safety certificate or be with a certified adult. The safety legislation would initially apply to boaters born in 1993 or later. In 2025, the law would expand to include people born in 1985 or later. It would not apply to out-of-state visitors renting a boat in Massachusetts.
Boating laws are handled at the state level, so a skipper may be fully legal to operate a powerboat in their home state. But what if they want to try waters across state lines? Some states like Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island have formal interstate agreements (“reciprocity”) that allow boaters to legally boat across state lines. Other states have legal loopholes that allow nonresidents to boat in their states.
The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) represents boating authorities of all 56 U.S. states and territories and sets and maintains boating education standards across the country. However, each state sets its own rules. Although there are differences among some states (such as an additional endorsement required to operate a PWC or skipper a vessel while engaged in tow sports), any adult boater visiting another state with a NASBLA-approved boater education card can legally operate a powerboat in any other state, typically for 30 or 60 days. Therefore, most vacationers can trailer, rent, or charter for that long in just about any state.
BoatU.S. advises boaters to contact the state agency, or check its website, to confirm the laws for individual states. The best national source is NASBLA.org, which maintains a dashboard where boaters can easily check the boating certificate requirements and find a link to each state’s boating agency. — R.A.
Certification is not a ‘license’
Whether it’s earned in the classroom or online, a state boater certification card is proof of successfully completing an approved boating safety course. Proof of certification must be on board the vessel and available on request by marine officers. However, because the certification card does not expire and does not need to be renewed, it is not a boating “license,” as many people refer to it.
Just like a license, however, boating certificates can be suspended and revoked in some states — usually for boating under the influence (BUI) offenses that also come packaged with a litany of legal and financial woes. — R.A.
Become a better boater
There are many options to obtain a boating certification, either in a classroom or online, but the key stamp of approval to look for is “NASBLA-certified,” which means the course adheres to American National Standards and is universally accepted in all U.S. states and territories. The first stop is NASBLA.org/Education to find approved boating courses by state.
The BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water offers a range of online and on-water boating safety training courses — including 36 free state courses — that can be found at BoatUS.org/Courses. More than 171,000 people took the free state boating certification courses last year.
- Free boating safety course. The Foundation offers the only free online boating safety course developed specifically for your state. They’re recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard and approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) and 36 states.
- Advanced courses. Want to brush up or learn a new skill? The Foundation offers 16 courses on various topics, including marine radios, navigation, weather, hurricane prep, sailing, and more. Prices range from free to $40 each.
- In-person learning. The Foundation has a database of U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons, and privately offered courses from around the country. Visit BoatUS.org/Courseline and type in your zip code to find courses in your area.
- On-water training. The burgeoning BoatU.S. Foundation On-Water Training program is offered through partners around the country. The affordable three-hour courses range from $179 to $249 depending on location, are taught by Coast Guard-licensed captains, and have a maximum of four students so everyone gets ample time at the helm. Enter your zip code at BoatUS.org/On-Water to find training near you. — R.A.