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Safe Boating

Virginia Boating Safety Education

All PWC operators and motorboat operators of boats registered in Virginia with a motor of 10 horsepower and greater must take a boating safety course.

Boating Education Courses

The DWR provides a free classroom boating safety course, Boat Virginia. This course is available throughout the year. The DWR also supports NASBLA approved boating courses offered by the USCG Auxiliary (USCGAux) and the U.S. Power Squadrons (USPS). There are several internet courses that meet Virginia’s Boating Safety Education Requirement. For a up-to-date list of boating safety education course offerings and boating safety information, visit this link. To arrange a free vessel safety check, please call 1-800-245-2628, follow this link, or contact local USCG Auxiliary or USPS member.

Do I Need to Take a Boating Course?

  • YES: If you have never taken a NASBLA approved boating safety course and you operate a PWC or a boat registered in Virginia with a motor of 10 horsepower and greater.
  • NO: If you have previously taken a NASBLA approved boating safety course and still have a card/certificate.
  • NO: If you are serving or have qualified as an Officer of the Deck Underway, boat coxswain, boat officer, boat operator, watercraft operator, or Marine Deck Officer in any branch of the Armed Forces of the United States, United States Coast Guard, or Merchant Marine.
  • NO: If you hold or have held a license to operate a vessel (Master, Captain, or Mate).
  • NO: If you are or have been a Registered Commercial Fisherman with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).
  • NO: If you are or have been a surface warfare officer/enlisted surface warfare specialist in the United States Navy.

General Information

  • You must carry proof of course completion on board with you while operating.
  • If your boat is registered in another state you must meet your home state’s education requirement.
  • If you are planning to rent a boat, please check with the boat rental company.
  • Refer to our website for more details about the education requirement.


Boating laws are enforced primarily by Conservation Police Officers employed by DWR. These officers have full police powers and have the right to lawfully stop and board your boat at any time to check for proper registration and required safety equipment.

The Law about Alcohol, Drugs, and Boating

Virginia’s law states that boat operators with blood alcohol concentrations of .08 percent or more by weight, by volume, shall be presumed to be under the influence of alcoholic intoxicants. Operating a boat under the influence is a Class I Misdemeanor and can result in up to a $2,500 fine and/or up to 12 months in jail as well as the loss of the privilege to operate a motorboat for up to a year.

Implied Consent

The Virginia Implied Consent Law states that by operating a watercraft, you are agreeing to submit to a breath and/or blood test to determine the amount of alcohol and/or drugs in your blood. Unreasonable refusal to submit to these tests constitutes grounds for the revocation of the operator’s privilege to operate a watercraft on the waters of the Commonwealth.

Zero Tolerance Law

Virginia Law prohibits persons younger than 21 from consuming alcohol and operating a watercraft with any measurable alcohol level. Operation under the influence of alcohol or other drugs is a criminal offense. Additionally, persons age 18–20 arrested buying, possessing, or drinking alcohol can be fined up to $2,500, lose their motor vehicle operator’s license for up to 1 year, and be sent to jail.

Protect Yourself

Don’t allow a drinking boater to make you and your passengers boating fatality statistics. Be alert to what other boaters are doing and steer clear of boaters who may be abusing alcohol and/or drugs.

Speed Laws

No Wake

  1. “No Wake” is defined as the slowest possible speed required to maintain steerage and headway.
  2. It shall be unlawful to operate any motorboat greater than no wake speed in areas marked with regulatory “No Wake” buoys.
  3. It shall be unlawful to operate any motorboat greater than no wake speed when within 50 feet or less of docks, piers, boathouses, boat ramps, and people in the water. This definition does not prohibit the pulling of a skier with a rope of less than 50 feet, nor a person accompanying the motorboat (wake surfing) provided the motorboat is propelled by an inboard motor.

Slacken Speed

Operators shall reduce speed to avoid endangering persons or property by the effect of the motorboat’s wake when approaching or passing vessels under way, lying to, at anchor, or made fast to the shore; or, when approaching or passing piers, docks, or boathouses; or when approaching or passing persons in the water or using water skis or surfboards.

Safe Speed

A safe speed is a speed less than the maximum at which the operator can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and stop within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.

In establishing a safe operating speed, the operator shall take into account: visibility, traffic density, ability to maneuver the vessel (stopping distance and turning ability), background light at night, proximity of navigational hazards, draft of the vessel, limitations of radar equipment, and the state of wind, sea, and current.

New Move Over Law

Every motorboat, when approaching or passing within 200 feet of any law enforcement vessel or emergency services vessel that is displaying flashing blue or red lights, shall slow to no-wake speed so that the effect of the wake does not disturb the activities of the law enforcement or emergency services personnel. Where the operator of a motorboat fails to comply with this regulation, and where such failure endangers the life or limb of any person involved or endangers or damages the vessels involved, the operator shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be additionally required to complete and pass a NASBLA-approved safe boating course.

Other Unlawful Acts

  • No person shall operate any motorboat or vessel, or manipulate any skis, surfboard, or similar device in a reckless manner so as to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person.
  • It is unlawful to allow any person to ride or sit on the bow, gunwale, transom, or on the decking over the bow of the vessel while under power unless such motorboat is provided with adequate guards or railing to prevent passengers from falls overboard. Passengers or other persons aboard a watercraft may occupy these areas of the vessel to moor or anchor the watercraft, to cast off, or for any other necessary purpose.
  • No person shall operate or allow another person to operate an unregistered motorboat, a boat with an expired certificate of number, a boat with the number improperly displayed, an unauthorized number displayed, or without carrying the certificate of number onboard.
  • No person shall operate a boat without exhibiting the lights as required by law between sunset and sunrise.
  • No person shall fail to stop, render assistance, give their name and address at the scene of an accident, or report an incident in the proper timeframe.
  • No person shall operate a boat in a manner that violates any regulatory marker
  • No person shall operate a boat, skis, or similar device in an area designated for swimming.
  • No person shall engage in snorkeling or scuba diving in waters open to boating without displaying a diver-down flag. All vessels must stay at least 25 yards away when the flag is displayed.

Towed Watersports Safety

The boating law contains several provisions related to the towing of persons on water skis, tubes, surfboards, or similar devices and the manipulation of such devices by the person being towed.

  1. All boats towing a water skier(s) or other persons on towed devices MUST have ONE of the following:
    • Persons being towed must be wearing a USCG approved life jacket or
    • There must be an observer on the boat (in addition to the operator) who is in a position to observe the progress of the skier.
  2. A person(s) being towed on water skis or other device may not operate in a reckless or dangerous manner.
  3. A person(s) being towed on water skis or other device may not operate while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including prescription narcotics and illegal drugs.
  4. The operator of the boat towing a water skier(s) or person(s) on another towing device may not manipulate or control the boat so as to cause the person(s) being towed to collide with any object or person.
  5. Water skiing behind a motorboat (or towing of people on other devices) is allowed only between one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. Check the official sunrise and sunset times for your area.
  6. Water skiing behind a PWC (or towing of people on other devices) is allowed only between sunrise to sunset. Check the official sunrise and sunset times for your area.

Personal Watercraft (PWC) Operation

A personal watercraft is a motorboat less than 16 feet in length which uses an inboard motor powering a jet pump as its primary motive power and which is designed to be operated by a person sitting, standing or kneeling on, rather than in the conventional manner of sitting or standing inside the vessel.

PWCs must follow all rules and regulations for motorboats. There are additional rules and regulations for PWC operators as follows:

  1. It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a PWC, or the owner or any person having control to authorize or knowingly permit a person to operate a PWC, unless the operator is at least 16 years of age. Any person age 14 or 15 may operate a PWC if they have successfully completed an approved boating education safety course, carry proof of successful completion of such course, and show this proof upon request by a law enforcement officer.
  2. It is unlawful to operate a PWC unless the operator, each rider and anyone being towed by a PWC is wearing a USCG approved wearable life jacket suited for this activity. Inflatable life jackets are prohibited.
  3. If the PWC is equipped with a lanyard-type engine cut-off switch, the operator must attach the lanyard to his person, clothing, or life jacket.
  4. It is unlawful to operate a PWC after sunset or before sunrise.
  5. It is unlawful to operate a PWC while carrying passengers in excess of the number for which the craft was designed by the manufacturer; including towed passengers.
  6. A person shall be guilty of reckless operation who operates any PWC recklessly so as to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person, which shall include, but not be limited to: (1) weaving through other vessels which are underway, stopped, moored or anchored while exceeding a reasonable speed; (2) following another vessel or skier, crossing the path of another vessel or skier, crossing the path of another vessel more closely than is reasonable and prudent; (3) crossing between the towing vessel and a skier; or (4) steering toward an object or person and turning sharply in close proximity to such object or person in order to spray or attempt to spray an object or person with the wash or jet spray of the PWC.
  7. PWC operators must maintain “no wake” operation when within 50 feet or less of docks, piers, boathouses, boat ramps, people in the water and vessels other than PWCs. PWCs may tow a skier with a rope less than 50 feet. No wake is defined as “The slowest possible speed required to maintain steerage and headway.”

The above provisions do not apply to participants in regattas, races, marine parades, tournaments or exhibitions approved by the Board of the DWR or the USCG.

Most boating accidents are the result of a collision, either between two vessels, or between a vessel and a fixed or submerged object. For this reason, boat operators are cautioned to follow the established Navigation Rules, especially maintaining a proper lookout and safe speed. Remember the three basic rules of navigation:

  1. Practice Good Seamanship — it is the responsibility of every vessel or PWC operator to take all necessary action to avoid collisions. Such action should be taken in ample time to avoid a collision and at a safe distance from other vessels.
  2. Keep a Proper Lookout — every operator must keep a proper lookout using both sight and hearing at all times. Watch and listen for other vessels, radio communications, navigation hazards, and others involved in water activities.
  3. Maintain a Safe Speed — safe speed will vary depending upon conditions such as wind, water conditions, navigation hazards, visibility, surrounding vessel traffic, and the maneuverability of your vessel.

The boat operator is responsible for knowing and following all of the applicable navigation rules. Copies of the rules may be obtained from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402, 202-512-1800 or on the USCG website. The stock number is 050-012- 00192-8.

Right Side = Starboard

Left Side = Port

Head-on (bow to bow)

When two power-driven vessels are meeting head-on or nearly head-on, each shall alter her course to starboard (right) so that each shall pass on the port side of the other. A head-on situation exists when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead and by night she could see the masthead lights of the other in a line or nearly in a line or both sidelights.

Giveway and Stand-on Vessels

Give-way and Stand-on is the terminology used to describe the appropriate action of each vessel in crossing and passing situations.

The “give-way” vessel is the vessel that must take early and substantial action to keep well clear of another vessel.

The “stand-on” vessel shall maintain course and speed unless it becomes apparent that the vessel required to keep out of the way (the “giveway” vessel) is not taking the appropriate action. If the stand-on vessel must take action to avoid a collision, it must avoid turning to port for a vessel on her port side.

An action taken to avoid a collision needs to be positive, made in ample time and large enough to be apparent to the other vessel. If necessary to avoid a collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel must slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing engines.

In crossing situations, power boats must giveway to sailing vessels under sail regardless of the angle the power-driven vessel approaches the sailing vessel.


When two power-driven vessels are crossing, the vessel which has the other on her starboard side shall give way and keep out of the way and avoid crossing ahead (in front) of the other vessel.

When taking action to stay out of the way, make it early, substantial and well clear of the other boat. Avoid making a succession of small alterations of course or speed. If you are directed by the Rules to stay out of the way, then make your turn large and obvious so as to be readily apparent to another vessel both visually or by radar. This is especially true at night, when the only visual indication of your course change is the alteration of your boat’s lights.


Any vessel overtaking any other shall give-way and keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken.

When a vessel is in any doubt as to whether it is overtaking another, it shall assume that this is the case and act accordingly.

If you are being overtaken (passed), you are the stand-on vessel and should maintain your course and speed. The vessel overtaking you should notify an intent to pass by making an appropriate sound signal. One short blast of the horn or whistle means “I intend to overtake you on your starboard side” and 2-short blasts means “I intend to overtake you on your port side”.

When two sailing vessels are approaching one another in a crossing situation, one of them shall keep out of the way of the other as follows:

  • When each has the wind on a different side, the vessel which has the wind on the port side shall keep out of the way of the other;
  • When both have the wind on the same side, the vessel which is to windward shall keep out of the way of the vessel which is to leeward; and
  • If a vessel with the wind on the port side sees a vessel to windward and cannot determine with certainty whether the other vessel has the wind on the port or on the starboard side, she shall keep out of the way of the other.

Windward side is deemed to be the side opposite to that on which the main-sail is carried.

Responsibility Between Vessels

Except where otherwise required:

A power-driven vessel shall keep out of the way of:

  • A vessel not under command
  • A vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver, such as a tug boat or deep-draft freighter
  • A vessel engaged in commercial fishing
  • A sailing vessel

A sailing vessel shall keep out of the way of:

  • A vessel not under command
  • A vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver, such as a tug boat or deep-draft freighter
  • A vessel engaged in commercial fishing

Departure From Regulations To Avoid Immediate Danger

At times it may be necessary to depart from these rules in order to avoid immediate danger. When, from any cause the vessel required to keep its course and speed finds itself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, the operator shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision. This action does not relieve the give-way vessel of its obligation to keep out of the way. The give-way vessel is that vessel required to take early and substantial action to keep well away from other vessels by stopping, slowing or changing course.

Narrow Channels

In narrow channels, the operator of every vessel shall, when it is safe and practicable, keep to that side of the fairway or mid-channel which lies on the right side of such vessel. The operator of a vessel under 65.6 feet in length underway, fishing or at anchor in narrow channels shall not interfere with the passage of large, deep-draft vessels that can safely navigate only inside such channels.

Restricted Visibility

The following rule applies to vessels not in sight of one another when navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility:

Proceed at a safe speed adapted to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility. A power-driven vessel shall have engines ready for immediate maneuver.

Except where it has been determined that a risk of collisions does not exist, every vessel which hears apparently forward of her beam the fog signal of another vessel, or which cannot avoid a close-quarter situation with another vessel forward of her beam, shall reduce her speed to the minimum at which she can be kept on course. She shall if necessary take all way off (slow down or stop) and in any event, navigate with extreme caution until danger of collision is over.

Sound Signals for Restricted Visibility

Whistle means any sound producing device capable of producing a blast.

  • Short Blast = a blast of about 1 second.
  • Prolonged Blast = a blast of from 4–6 seconds’ duration.

In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night, the following sound signals shall be made:

  • A power-driven vessel making way through the water — one prolonged blast at least once every 2 minutes.
  • A power-driven vessel underway but stopped and making no way through the water shall sound at intervals of not more than 2 minutes two prolonged blasts in succession with an interval of about 2 seconds between them.
  • A sailing vessel, whether underway or at anchor, shall sound one-prolonged blast followed by two-short blast at least once every 2 minutes.

Aids to Navigation

Buoys are the most familiar aids to navigation-they’re the signposts of the water. Here’s how they work: entering a channel or river from open water, buoys on the right (starboard) are painted red and are even numbered starting from the mouth. Buoys on the left (port) side of the channel are green buoys with odd numbers. Stay between the red and green buoys and keep to the right of the channel.

Buoys marking mid-channel have red and white vertical stripes; those marking obstructions or junctions are striped horizontally red or green with the top band marking the best channel. Red top: keep buoy on your right. Green top: keep buoy on your left. Remember: RRR for “Red Right Returning.” Returning means going upstream, or coming from the ocean.

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