Laws & Safety

Every year, thousands of boating enthusiasts take to the waterways of North Carolina to fish, sail, water ski, and pursue other vessel-based recreation. Wildlife Officers enforce the boating laws and navigation regulations on the waters of the state, always with the aim of safety. Officers may stop any vessel for safety checks or violations, as authorized by N.C.G.S. §75A and conduct boating accident investigations.

Boating Regulations

State laws for operating vessels on public waterways.

Rules of the Water:

  • Every boat operator has the obligation to take whatever action is necessary to avoid an accident.
  • File a Float Plan: document essential information or fill out a form about your excursion and leave it with a reliable person who can be depended upon to notify the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) or another rescue organization, should you not return as scheduled. (Do not file float plan with the USCG.)
  • Navigation Aids and Regulatory Markers: Reference Vessel Operator's Guide, page 17-19.
  • Passing: when one vessel overtakes another going in the same direction, the craft being overtaken must maintain course and speed, and the passing vessel must keep a sufficient distance to avoid collision or endangering the other craft from its wake.
  • Report Boating Accidents: boating accidents that occur on public waters must be reported to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (24-hour toll free at 800-662-7137) when any one of the following occur:
    • Loss of life, an injury requiring medical treatment or a person is unconscious or left disabled for 24 hours
    • Actual physical damage to property (including vessels) is in excess of $2,000
    • A person disappears from the vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury.

North Carolina Boating Checklist

For more information on the terms used below, please refer to the Vessel Operator's Guide, a convenient reference to the requirements of North Carolina boating laws and regulations. (Spanish version)

Personal Watercraft (PWCs) and Boats Less than 26 Feet

  • Float Plan.
  • Boater Education Certificate on Board: in North Carolina, any person born on or after January 1, 1988 must complete a NASBLA approved boating education course before operating any vessel propelled by a motor of 10 HP or greater on public waterways. G.S. 75A-16.2.
  • Certificate of Number Registration On Board.
  • Validation Decals Displayed.
  • Type B-I Fire Extinguisher.
  • Ventilation System.
  • Muffler.
  • Horn, Whistle or Bell.

In addition:

Personal Watercraft (PWCs)

  • Boater Education Certificate on Board is also required for PWC operators 14 years of age or older. No person under 14 years of age may operate a PWC. Persons 14 years of age or older may also operate without a boating education certificate if physically accompanied on the PWC by an adult at least 18 years of age and meets the requirements of G.S. 16.2.
  • PFDs Type I, II, or III: those on personal watercraft (PWCs) must wear an approved personal flotation device (life jacket) at all times.
  • Ignition Safety Switch: safety kill switch lanyard must be attached to operator.
  • Backfire Flame Arrestor.
  • Nighttime Visual Distress Signals and Navigation Lights: certain items are not applicable to PWCs because PWCs are not allowed to operate between sunset and sunrise.

Boats less than 26 feet:

  • PFDs Type I, II or III: children under 13 years of age must wear an approved life jacket while underway.
  • Ignition Safety Switch: safety kill switch and lanyard not required but recommended.
  • Backfire Flame Arrestor: required on inboards and stern drives only.
  • Nighttime Visual Distress Signals: required only when boating on federally controlled waters.
  • Navigation Lights.

Boats 16 feet to less than 26 feet: