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Law Enforcement

A vessel underway, when hailed by a Coast Guard vessel is required to heave to, or maneuver in such a manner that permits a boarding officer to come aboard.

Other federal, state and local law enforcement officials may board and examine your vessel, whether it is numbered, unnumbered or documented. Coast Guard law enforcement personnel may also be found aboard other vessels.

The Coast Guard may impose a civil penalty up to $1,000 for failure to: comply with equipment requirements; report a boating accident; or comply with other Federal regulations. Failure to comply with the Inland Navigation Rules Act of 1980 can result in a civil penalty up to $5,000.

Improper use of a radio-telephone is a criminal offense. The use of obscene, indecent or profane language during radio communications is punishable by a $10,000 fine, imprisonment for two years or both. Other penalties exist for misuse of a radio, such as improper use of Channel 16 VHF-FM.

Channel 16 is a calling and distress channel. It is not to be used for conversation or radio checks. Such traffic should be conducted on an authorized working channel.

Boating Under the Influence (BUI)

Operating a vessel while intoxicated became a specific federal offense effective January 13, 1988.

The final rule set standards for determining when an individual is intoxicated. If the blood alcohol content (BAC) is .08% (.10% in some states) or higher for operators of recreational vessels being used only for pleasure, violators are subject to a civil penalty not to exceed $1,000 or criminal penalty not to exceed $5,000, one year imprisonment or both.

Negligent Operation

Negligent or grossly negligent operation of a vessel and/or interference with the safe operation of a vessel, so as to endanger lives and/or property, are prohibited by law. The Coast Guard may impose a civil penalty for negligent operation. Grossly negligent operation is a criminal offense and an operator may be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for one year, or both. Some examples of actions that may constitute negligent or grossly negligent operation are:

  • Operating a boat in a swimming area.
  • Operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Excessive speed in the vicinity of other boats or in dangerous waters.
  • Hazardous water skiing practices.
  • Bowriding, also riding on seatback, gunwale, or transom.
Termination of Use

A Coast Guard boarding officer who observes a boat being operated in an UNSAFE CONDITION, specifically defined by law or regulation, and who determines that an ESPECIALLY HAZARDOUS CONDITION exists, may direct the operator to take immediate steps to correct the condition, including returning to port.

Termination for unsafe use may be imposed for:

  • Insufficient number of CG Approved Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs).
  • Insufficient fire extinguishers.
  • Overloading beyond manufacturer's recommended safe loading capacity.
  • Improper navigation light display.
  • Ventilation requirements for tank and engine spaces not met.
  • Fuel leakage.
  • Fuel in bilges.
  • Improper backfire flame control.
  • Operating in regulated boating areas during predetermined adverse conditions. (Applies in 13th CG District only).
  • Manifestly unsafe voyage.

An operator who refuses to terminate the unsafe use of a vessel can be cited for failure to comply with the directions of a Coast Guard boarding officer, as well as for the specific violations which were the basis for the termination order. Violators may be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than one year or both.

Reporting Boating Accidents

The operator or owner of any recreational boat is required to file a Boating Accident Report (BAR) if the boat is involved in an accident that results in:

  1. Loss of life; or
  2. Personal injury which requires medical treatment beyond first aid; or
  3. Damage to the boat and other property damage of $2,000 or more; or
  4. Complete loss of the boat.

Boat operators are required to report their accident to local authorities in the State where the accident occurred.

Fatal Accidents

Immediate notification is required for fatal accidents. If a person dies or disappears as a result of a recreational boating accident, the nearest state boating authority must be notified without delay. The following information must be provided:

  • Date, time and exact location of the accident;
  • Name of each person who died or disappeared;
  • Number and name of the vessel; and
  • Name and address of the owner and operator.
Reporting Timelines
  • If a person dies, disappears from the boat, or there are injuries requiring medical treatment beyond first aid, a formal report must be filed within 48 hours of the accident.
  • A formal report must be made within 10 days for accidents involving property damage of $2,000 or more, or complete loss of a vessel.

Note: State requirements for Reporting Boating Accidents may be more stringent than Federal (i.e. some States require ALL boating accidents to be reported immediately). Check with the Boating Law Administrator in the State where the accident occurred for proper reporting procedures.

The U.S. Coast Guard Infoline

If you need further information regarding accident reporting, please call the U.S. Coast Guard Infoline at 800-368-5647.

Rendering Assistance

The master or person in charge of a vessel is obligated by law to provide assistance that can be safely provided to any individual in danger at sea. The master or person in charge is subject to a fine and/or imprisonment for failure to do so.

Requesting Towing Assistance (Non-Distress Call)

When a boater contacts the Coast Guard on channel 16 VHF-FM and the situation is determined to be non-distress, the Coast Guard will offer to contact any assistance provider (commercial or friend) the boater requests. If the boater has no preference, the Coast Guard will issue a Marine Assistance Request Broadcast (MARB) to all local commercial assistance providers approved by the Coast Guard. A provider will contact the boater directly.

U.S. Coast Guard Boarding Policy

The U.S. Coast Guard is the primary maritime law enforcement agency of the U.S.

Authority: Section 89 of Title 14 of the United States Code authorizes the Coast Guard to board vessels subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S., anytime upon the high seas and upon waters over which the United States has jurisdiction, to make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures and arrests.

What to expect: A uniformed CG boarding team will notify you that they are coming aboard to conduct a CG boarding. Like other law enforcement officers, they will be armed. Once on board they will conduct an initial safety inspection to identify any obvious safety hazards, and to ensure the sea worthiness of your vessel. The boarding officer will then ask to see the vessel registration or documentation, and proceed to inspect your vessel. The scope of the vessel inspection, during most boardings, is limited to determining the vessel's regulatory status (e.g. commercial, recreational, passenger, cargo, and/or fishing vessel) and checking for compliance with U.S. civil law applicable to vessels of that status. The CG may also enforce U.S. criminal law. The boarding officer will complete a Coast Guard boarding form, and note any discrepancies. You will get a signed copy before they depart.

Report of Boarding: When a CG boarding officer issues you a boarding report, they will either issue a yellow copy, if no discrepancies were noted, or a white copy if there were. A white copy will indicate a warning or a notice of violation. The CG boarding officer should explain the procedures to follow in each case. In any event, those procedures are written on the reverse of the form. If you have any questions ask the CG boarding officer, or call the U.S. Coast Guard Infoline at 800-368-5647.

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