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Equipment Regulations

Required Equipment

Summary of Virginia Boating Equipment Requirements
Manually Propelled Kayaks and Canoes PWC’s Boats Under 16 Feet Boats 16 Feet-Less Than 26 Feet Boats 26 Feet-Less Than 40 Feet Boats 40 Feet-65 Feet
Life Jackets – Wearable X X1 X X X X
Life Jackets – Type IV X X X
Certificate of Number X X2 X2 X X
Validation Decal X X2 X2 X X
Type B-1 Fire Extinguisher X X3 X3
Type B-II Fire Extinguisher X4 X5
Ignition Safety Switch X
Backfire Flame Arrestor X X X X X
Ventilation System X X X X X
Muffler (inboard engines) X X X X X
Horn, Whistle, or Bell X8 X X X X X
Daytime VDS – Operating in Coastal Waters X X X
Nightime VDS – Operating in Coastal Waters X X X X X
Navigation Lights X6 X6 X6 X6 X6
Boating Safety Education Certificate X X7 X7 X7 X7
  1. The operator, each rider, and anyone being towed behind a PWC must be wearing a USCG approved Type I, II, III or V life jacket. Inflatable life jackets are prohibited.
  2. Except non-motorized vessels.
  3. Applies to boats where one of the following conditions exists: permanently installed fuel tanks; closed compartments under thwarts and seats where portable fuel tanks are stored; double bottoms not sealed at the hull or which are not completely filled with flotation material; closed living spaces; or closed stowage compartment in which combustible or flammable materials may be stowed.
  4. Must carry one B-II or two B-1. A fixed system equals one B-1.
  5. Must carry one B-II and one B-1 or three B-1. A fixed system equals one B-1.
  6. See Navigation Lights.
  7. Education requirement is being phased in through July 1 2016. Applies to all PWCs and all motorboats with engine of 10 hp or greater.
  8. A sufficient means of making a sound signal (4-6 seconds) in duration.

Life Jackets

Nearly all boating-related fatalities are the result of drowning and most of these fatalities could have been prevented if a life jacket was worn.

There must be one wearable (Type I, II, III, or V) USCG approved life jacket for each person on the boat. The life jacket must be the appropriate size for each intended wearer.

  • Each wearable life jacket needs to be “readily accessible” if not worn. Readily accessible means the life jackets are out in the open ready for wear or stowed where they can be easily reached. Readily accessible life jackets cannot be in protective coverings or under lock and key.
  • In addition, you should check each life jacket for proper fit. This is especially important for children. Check the Does Your Life Jacket Really Fit section.
  • Life jackets need to be worn according to the manufacturer label to meet safety requirements.
  • This requirement applies to all boats including paddlecraft (canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards).

In addition to the wearable life jacket, there must be at least one (1) USCG approved throwable device (Type IV, ring buoy or seat cushion), on vessels of 16 feet or greater. The regulation to carry a throwable device (Type IV) does not apply to (1) personal watercraft; (2) non-motorized canoes and kayaks of 16 feet or greater; (3) racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes, and racing kayaks; (4) sailboards; and (5) vessels of the United States used by foreign competitors while practicing for or racing in competition.

  • Each throwable device (Type IV) must be immediately available. “Immediately available” means the life jacket shall be quickly reachable in an emergency situation. An immediately available life jacket cannot be in a protective covering, in a closed compartment, or under other equipment. There is no requirement to have a line attached.

All life jackets must be in good and serviceable condition. A life jacket that displays any of the following is not in good condition:

  • Metal or plastic hardware used to secure the life jacket on the wearer that is broken, deformed, or weakened by corrosion; or
  • Webbings or straps used to secure the life jacket on the wearer that are ripped, torn, or which have become separated from an attachment point on the life jacket; or
  • Any other rotted or deteriorated structural component that fails when tugged; or
  • Rips, tears, or open seams in fabric or coatings, that are large enough to allow the loss of buoyant material; or
  • Buoyant material that has become hardened, non-resilient, permanently compressed, waterlogged, oil-soaked, or which shows evidence of fungus or mildew; or
  • Loss of buoyant material or buoyant material that is not securely held in position.

Inflatable Life Jackets must meet all the requirements for life jackets listed above plus the following:

  • A properly armed inflation mechanism, complete with a full inflation cartridge and all status indicators showing that the inflation mechanism is properly armed;
  • Inflatable chambers that are all capable of holding air;
  • Oral inflation tubes that are not blocked, detached, or broken;
  • Inflation status indicators that are not broken or otherwise non-functional;
  • The inflation system of an inflatable life jacket need not be armed when the life jacket is worn inflated and otherwise meets the requirements above.

Federal Life Jacket Rule for Children Under 13 Years Old—No person may operate a recreational vessel on federal waters with any child under age 13 on the vessel unless each child is either:

  • Wearing an appropriate life jacket approved by the Coast Guard; or
  • Below deck or in an enclosed cabin.

In Virginia, this rule is enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard or other federal agents and applies on waters over which they have enforcement jurisdiction. Most waters in Virginia are considered federal waters.

A Special Note about Inflatable Life Jackets

Inflatable life jackets are lightweight, comfortable to wear and take up about one-tenth the storage room of conventional foam-filled life jackets. Most are USCG approved only for persons 16 years of age and older who are not engaged in whitewater or skiing activities or riding on PWC. They are a great choice for adults on the water!

Does Your Life Jacket Really Fit?

How do you know if a life jacket really fits you? First, check the label to make sure the life jacket is U.S. Coast Guard approved. Life jackets (or PFDs) come in a couple of basic sizes: infant, child, and adult. Within those basic sizes, there will be a range (Small, Medium, Large, etc.) of sizes. The label will indicate the basic size and the size range, which will include a weight range and usually also a chest size range. After you check the label, make sure you move on to the second step, try it on! Before every boating season, try on your life jacket. Make sure that it fits correctly. What does a correct fit mean? It should be snug, but not tight. Lift your arms over your head, can you turn your head left, right, and over your shoulder or has the life jacket ridden up and is in the way of moving your head? For a child, have them stand with their arms to their sides. Lift the life jacket up by the shoulders. The life jacket should not move more than 3 inches, no higher than the child’s ears. If the life jacket does move up more than 3 inches, it is too big and the child can slip right out—get a smaller life jacket! A younger child’s life jacket should also include a crotch strap—this will help insure the life jacket stays on. Finally, practice using the life jacket in shallow water. Make sure it is snug enough to stay put and not ride up over the chin and ears when in shallow water. Have children practice in shallow water with their life jacket so they don’t panic in case of emergency.


Fire Extinguishers

fire_extinguisherAll boats over 26 feet must have USCG approved, adequately charged fire extinguishers aboard (see the chart for specific
safety requirement). In addition, all motorboats under 26 feet that have one or more of the following conditions must also carry fire extinguishers:

  • Permanently installed fuel tanks.
  • Closed compartment under thwarts and seats wherein portable fuel tanks may be stored.
  • Double bottoms not sealed to the hull or which are not completely filled with flotation material.
  • Closed living spaces.
  • Closed stowage compartment in which combustible or flammable materials may be stowed.

All fire extinguishers must be U.S. Coast Guard approved, must have an efficient change, and must be in good and service-able condition.

Minimum Number of B-I Hand-Portable Fire Extinguishers Required*
Length in feet No Fixed Fire Extinguishing Systems in Engine Space Fixed Fire Extinguishing System in Engine Space
Under 16 1 0
16 to less than 26 1 0
26 to less than 40 2 1
40 to 65 3 2
* One B-11 hand-portable fire extinguisher may be substituted for two B-1 hand-portable fire extinguishers.

Backfire Flame Arrestor

All powerboats, except outboards, that are fueled with gasoline must have a USCG approved backfire flame arrestor on each carburetor.


No person may operate a boat built after July 31, 1980, that has a gasoline engine (except out-boards) unless it is equipped with an operable ventilation system that meets USCG standards.

For boats built after April 25, 1940, and before August 1, 1980, (with engines using gasoline as fuel and other fuels having a flashpoint of 110°F. or less) the following is required:

At least two ventilation ducts fitted with cowls or their equivalent for the purpose of properly and efficiently ventilating the bilges of every engine and fuel tank compartment. There shall be at least one exhaust duct installed so as to extend to the lower portion of the bilge and at least one intake duct installed so as to extend to a point at least midway to the bilge or at least below the level of the carburetor air intake.

For boats which are built after July 31, 1978, but prior to August 1, 1980, there are no requirements for ventilation of the fuel tank compartment if there is no electrical source in the compartment and if the fuel tank vents to the outside of the boat.

The operator of the vessel is required to keep the system in operating condition.

Sound Producing Devices


whistleThe navigation rules require sound signals to be made under certain circumstances. Meeting, crossing, and overtaking situations described in Navigation Rules are examples of when sound signals are required. Recreational vessels are also required to sound fog signals during periods of reduced visibility. Having some means of making an efficient sound signal capable of a 4-second blast audible for 1/2 mile is required. A whistle or air horn is acceptable if your vessel is not equipped with a horn. All vessels, including paddlecraft, must carry a sound-producing device.

Muffling Device

The exhaust of an internal combustion engine on any motorboat shall be effectively muffled. The muffling device shall exhaust at or below the water line or it shall be equipped with mechanical baffles. The use of cutouts is prohibited.

Marine Sanitation Devices (MSD)

Vessels with installed toilets and marine sanitation devices shall be in compliance with federal regulations which set standards for sewage discharges from marine sanitation devices. Vessels without installed toilets or without installed marine sanitation devices shall not directly or indirectly discharge sewage into state waters. Sewage and other wastes from self-contained, portable toilets or other containment devices shall be pumped out at pump-out facilities or carried ashore for treatment in facilities approved by the Virginia Department of Health. Smith Mountain Lake is a “No Discharge Zone.”

Pump Out Stations

A complete list of pump out stations is available at the Virginia Department of Health’s website or by calling VDH at 804-864-7473.

Visual Distress Signals

All power boats 16 feet or greater in length shall be equipped with visual distress signaling devices at all times when operating on coastal waters. This regulation applies to all coastal waters and those rivers 2 miles or more wide at the mouth and up to the first point the river narrows to less than 2 miles.

Boats less than 16 feet, manually propelled boats (rowboats, canoes, kayaks, etc.), and open sailboats under 26 feet with no motor, are required to carry only night visual distress signals when operated on coastal waters at night.

Recreational boaters may carry additional visual distress signals over the minimum number of VDS required.

Note: It is illegal to display a visual distress signal unless immediate assistance is needed.

If using pyrotechnic signals, must have 3 night signals plus 3 day signals or 3 day/night combination signals. If using non-pyrotechnic signals, you must have 1 day signal and 1 night signal.


Pyrotechnic visual distress signals must be:

  • USCG approved
  • in serviceable condition
  • readily accessible.
  • not expired
  • Launchers produced before January 1, 1981, intended for use with approved signals are not required to be USCG approved.

USCG approved Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals include:

  • Pyrotechnic red flares, hand-held or aerial;
  • Pyrotechnic orange smoke, handheld or floating;
  • Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares.

Non-pyrotechnic visual distress signaling devices must:

  • Meet USCG requirements.
  • Be in serviceable condition
  • Be readily accessible.

USCG approved Non-pyrotechnic visual distress signals include:

  • Orange distress flag with black square and black ball, for daytime use;
  • Electric distress light for night use.

The following points will be used as the “cutoff points” for enforcement of the visual distress signal regulations on the coastal waters in Virginia. These points can be found on the appropriate nautical chart.

  1. Entrance to Hampton Roads up to where the waterway is reduced to 2 nautical miles which is a line drawn between Old Point Comfort and Fort Wool.
  2. York River up to where the waterway is reduced to 2 nautical miles which is a line drawn between Sandy Point and Tue Point, which is in the vicinity of Tue Marshes Light.
  3. Mobjack Bay up to, but not including, the Severn, Ware, North and East rivers.
  4. Entrance to the Piankatank River where the waterway is reduced to 2 nautical miles which is a line drawn from Cherry Point at Gwynns Island across the river to the opposite shore, which is in the vicinity of Piankatank River Lighted Buoy 6.
  5. Rappahannock River up to where the waterway is reduced to 2 nautical miles, which is a line drawn from Parrott Island to Cherry Point, which is just before you get to the first highway bridge.
  6. Those parts of the Pocomoke and Tangier Sounds which fall within Virginia.
  7. Where the uncharted inlets of the Atlantic Ocean are reduced to 2 nautical miles in width.

Recreational boats, while underway, are required to display navigation lights between sunset and sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility (see navigation lights).

No other lights shall be exhibited that could impair the visibility of required running lights or impair the visibility of approaching vessels.

Lights Used When Anchored

An anchor light is a 360 degree (all-round) white light exhibited where it can best be seen and visible for 2 miles.

Special Lights for Enforcement Vessels

Enforcement vessels of the DWR, the USCG, and other law enforcement agencies may display a rotating or flashing blue light. When such a light is observed you should stop immediately and maneuver in such a way as to permit the boarding officer to come alongside or aboard.

By federal law, blue lights may only be displayed by enforcement vessels of the federal, state or local governments, and have the same effect on the water as the rotating or flashing blue lights on law enforcement cars traveling our highways.

Navigation Lights — Power Driven Vessels

Figure 1


Figure 2



Figure 3


Figure 4

Vessels Less Than 12 Meters (39.4 ft.) in Length

  • Vessels or sailboats using power: the lighting arrangement in Figure 1, 2, 3, or 4 may be used.
  • Sailboats using sail alone: the lighting arrangement in figure 5, 6, or 7 may be used.

The white masthead light or all around white light must be at least 1 meter (3.3 ft.) higher than the colored sidelights.

Vessels 12 Meters but Less Than 20 Meters (65.5 ft.) in Length

  • Vessels or sailboats using power: the lighting arrangement in Figure 1 or 2 may be used. The lighting arrangement in Figure 3 may be used if the vessel was constructed before December 24, 1980.
  • Sailboats using sail alone: the lighting arrangement in Figure 5, 6, or 7 may be used.

The white masthead light or all around white light must be at least 1 meter (3.3 ft.) higher than the colored sidelights.

Unpowered Vessels

A vessel under oars and sailboats less than 7 meters (23 feet) in length may display those lights prescribed for a sailing vessel, but it they do not, they shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern (Figure 8) shining a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.

International Rules (Past the Line of Demarcation)

Beyond three nautical miles of Viginia’s coastline, if your power-driven vessel is less than 23 feet (7 meters) in length and its maximum speed does not exceed 7 knots, then it may display an all-round white light, and if possible, sidelights instead of the lights previously prescribed.

Navigation Lights — Sailing Vessels

Figure 5


Figure 6


Figure 7


Figure 8