Virginia Boating Safety Education

Boating Education Courses

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) offers a free classroom boating safety course called Boat Virginia, available throughout the year. Additionally, NASBLA approved boating courses are provided by the USCG Auxiliary (USCGAux) and the U.S. Power Squadrons (USPS). Several internet courses also meet Virginia’s Boating Safety Education Requirement.

Vessel Safety Checks

To arrange a free vessel safety check, contact 1-800-245-2628, visit, or reach out to local USCG Auxiliary or USPS members.

Determining the Need for a Boating Course

  • YES: If you operate a Personal Watercraft (PWC) or a motorboat registered in Virginia with a motor of 10 horsepower and greater and have never taken a NASBLA approved boating safety course.
  • NO: If you have previously taken a NASBLA approved boating safety course and still possess a card/certificate.
  • NO: If you serve or have qualified in various maritime roles or hold specific licenses.
  • 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

  • Carry proof of course completion onboard while operating.
  • If your boat is registered in another state, comply with your home state’s education requirement.
  • Check with the boat rental company if you plan to rent a boat.
  • For more details about the education requirement, refer to our website.

Regulatory Oversight

Ensuring Compliance with Boating Regulations

Conservation Police Officers, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), are tasked with upholding boating laws. These officers possess comprehensive law enforcement authority, empowering them to conduct routine inspections and board vessels to verify compliance with registration protocols and safety gear mandates.

Boating Under the Influence (BUI) Regulations

Alcohol and Drug Prohibitions

In Virginia, operating a boat with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher is considered operating under the influence, constituting a Class I Misdemeanor. This violation may lead to hefty penalties including fines up to $2,500, imprisonment for up to 12 months, and a potential one-year suspension of boating privileges.

Implied Consent Principle

Under the Virginia Implied Consent Law, individuals operating watercraft automatically consent to breath and/or blood tests to ascertain alcohol and/or drug levels in their system. Refusal to undergo these tests can result in the revocation of boating privileges within the state.

Zero Tolerance Legislation

Virginia's Zero Tolerance Law prohibits individuals under 21 from operating a watercraft with any detectable alcohol level. Additionally, those aged 18–20 can face severe consequences, including fines up to $2,500, a one-year loss of motor vehicle operator’s license, and possible incarceration, if found purchasing, possessing, or consuming alcohol.

Safety Precautions

To safeguard against the risks associated with impaired boating, vigilance is key. Be attentive to the behavior of fellow boaters and steer clear of those displaying signs of alcohol or drug misuse. By remaining alert and proactive, you can help prevent boating accidents and tragedies.

Navigating Speed Regulations

No Wake Zones

In accordance with Virginia's regulations, "No Wake" signifies the slowest speed necessary to maintain control and forward motion. Operating a motorboat at speeds exceeding "No Wake" is prohibited in designated areas marked by regulatory buoys. Additionally, maintaining speeds greater than "No Wake" within 50 feet of docks, piers, boathouses, boat ramps, or individuals in the water is unlawful, with exceptions for specific water activities like skiing or wake surfing, provided certain conditions are met.

Slacken Speed Requirement

Operators must decrease speed to prevent endangerment to persons or property due to the wake generated by their motorboat. This requirement applies when approaching or passing other vessels in motion, stationary vessels, shoreline fixtures such as piers or docks, and individuals engaged in water activities like skiing or surfing.

Adhering to Safe Speed

Operating at a safe speed involves maintaining a velocity below the maximum limit that allows the operator to react effectively to potential hazards and stop within a reasonable distance. Factors to consider in determining a safe speed include visibility conditions, traffic volume, vessel maneuverability, lighting conditions (especially at night), presence of navigational obstacles, vessel draft, radar limitations, and prevailing weather and water conditions. It is incumbent upon the operator to assess these factors and adjust speed accordingly to ensure safe navigation.

Motorboat Move Over Law

Approach with Caution

Motorboat operators must exercise caution when nearing or passing within 200 feet of law enforcement or emergency services vessels exhibiting flashing blue or red lights. It is mandatory to reduce speed to no-wake levels to prevent disturbance to the activities of personnel onboard these vessels.

Compliance and Consequences

Failure to adhere to this regulation, especially when such non-compliance jeopardizes the safety of individuals or the integrity of vessels involved, constitutes a Class 3 misdemeanor. Convicted operators may face penalties, including the mandatory completion and passing of a NASBLA-approved safe boating course in addition to other legal consequences.

Safety First

The primary objective of this law is to ensure the safety of all parties involved in law enforcement or emergency response operations on the water. By slowing down and maintaining a no-wake speed, motorboat operators can contribute to a safer environment for personnel and mitigate potential risks associated with wake disturbance.

Prohibited Actions on the Water

Reckless Operation

Operating a motorboat, vessel, or engaging in water activities such as skiing or surfing in a reckless manner that poses a threat to the safety of individuals or property is strictly prohibited.

Passenger Safety Measures

Allowing individuals to sit or ride in precarious positions on the boat, such as the bow, gunwale, transom, or unsecured decking while under power, is unlawful unless adequate guards or railings are provided to prevent falls overboard. Exceptions are made for necessary tasks like mooring, anchoring, or casting off.

Registration and Compliance

Operating an unregistered motorboat, a vessel with an expired or improperly displayed certificate of number, or without carrying the necessary registration documentation onboard is against the law and subject to enforcement measures.

Nighttime Navigation Requirements

Operating a boat without displaying the required lights between sunset and sunrise is prohibited to ensure visibility and safety on the water during low-light conditions.

Accident Responsibilities

In the event of an accident, failing to stop, provide assistance, or report the incident within the designated timeframe is unlawful and may result in legal consequences.

Compliance with Markers

Operating a boat in disregard of regulatory markers, which indicate navigational guidelines and restrictions, is not permitted.

Respect for Designated Areas

Using boats, skis, or similar devices in areas designated for swimming is prohibited to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all water recreation participants.

Diver Safety Protocol

Engaging in snorkeling or scuba diving in waterways open to boating requires displaying a diver-down flag. Vessels must maintain a distance of at least 25 yards from areas where the flag is displayed to safeguard divers.

Safety Regulations for Towed Watersports

Life Jacket Requirement

When towing individuals on water skis, tubes, surfboards, or similar devices, boats must have either all participants wearing USCG approved life jackets or an additional observer on board who can monitor the activity.

Responsible Operation

Participants being towed must refrain from reckless or hazardous behavior while engaging in towed watersports activities.

Sobriety Requirement

It is unlawful for individuals being towed to operate while under the influence of alcohol, drugs (including prescription narcotics), or any illegal substances.

Prevention of Collisions

Operators of boats towing individuals on water skis or other devices must avoid maneuvers that could lead to collisions with objects or other individuals on the water.

Time Restrictions

Towed watersports behind motorboats are permitted only between one-half hour before sunrise and one-half hour after sunset, adhering to official sunrise and sunset times. Similarly, waterskiing behind personal watercraft (PWC) is allowed only from sunrise to sunset.

Regulations for Personal Watercraft (PWC) Operation

Definition and Compliance

A personal watercraft (PWC) is a motorboat under 16 feet in length, powered by an inboard motor with a jet pump, designed for operation with the rider sitting, standing, or kneeling on the vessel. PWC operators must adhere to all motorboat rules and regulations in addition to specific guidelines for PWC operation.

Operator Age Requirements

PWC operation is restricted to individuals aged 16 and above. Exceptions are made for those aged 14 or 15 who have completed an approved boating education safety course and can provide proof of completion upon request by law enforcement.

Life Jacket Mandate

All individuals aboard a PWC, including the operator, passengers, and anyone being towed, must wear USCG approved wearable life jackets suitable for PWC activities. Inflatable life jackets are not permitted.

Engine Cut-off Switch

If equipped with a lanyard-type engine cut-off switch, PWC operators must attach the lanyard to their person, clothing, or life jacket while operating the vessel.

Time Restrictions

Operating a PWC is prohibited after sunset or before sunrise.

Passenger Limitations

PWCs may not carry passengers exceeding the manufacturer's designated capacity, including those being towed.

Reckless Operation

Engaging in reckless operation of a PWC, such as weaving through other vessels, following too closely, or spraying objects or individuals with jet spray, is unlawful and endangers lives and property.

No Wake Zones

PWC operators must observe "no wake" speeds when within 50 feet of docks, piers, boathouses, boat ramps, individuals in the water, and vessels other than PWCs. Exceptions are made for towing skiers with a rope shorter than 50 feet.


The regulations outlined above do not apply to participants in approved regattas, races, marine parades, tournaments, or exhibitions sanctioned by the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) or the US Coast Guard (USCG).

Navigation Rules Overview

Importance of Navigation Rules

Following established Navigation Rules is crucial for preventing collisions, the leading cause of boating accidents. Operators are advised to prioritize good seamanship, maintain a proper lookout, and operate at a safe speed to ensure safety on the water.

Three Basic Rules

  1. Practice Good Seamanship: Every vessel operator must take necessary action to avoid collisions, ensuring maneuvers are executed in a timely manner and at a safe distance from other vessels.

  2. Keep a Proper Lookout: Operators must maintain vigilance using both sight and hearing, monitoring for other vessels, navigation hazards, radio communications, and activities involving watercraft.

  3. Maintain a Safe Speed: The appropriate speed varies based on factors such as wind, water conditions, visibility, vessel traffic, and maneuverability, allowing operators to react effectively to potential hazards.

Responsibility and Compliance

Operators are responsible for understanding and adhering to all applicable navigation rules. Copies of these rules can be obtained from the U.S. Government Printing Office or accessed online through the provided link.

Specific Navigation Situations

Head-On Encounters

When two power-driven vessels meet head-on or nearly so, both must alter their course to starboard (right) to pass on the port side of the other.

Give-Way and Stand-On Vessels

In crossing and passing situations, the "give-way" vessel must take early and substantial action to avoid a collision, while the "stand-on" vessel maintains course and speed unless the give-way vessel fails to take appropriate action.


The vessel with the other on its starboard side must give way and avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel. Any action taken to avoid a collision must be clear and evident to the other vessel.


Overtaking vessels must give way and keep clear of the vessel being overtaken. When in doubt, assume overtaking is occurring and act accordingly.

Specific Rules for Sailing Vessels

When sailing vessels approach each other, rules dictate which vessel should keep clear based on wind direction and positioning relative to each other.

Responsibility Between Vessels

Power-Driven Vessel Responsibilities

In general, a power-driven vessel must yield the right-of-way to:

  • A Vessel Not Under Command: A vessel unable to maneuver due to exceptional circumstances.
  • A Vessel Restricted in Maneuverability: Includes tugboats or deep-draft freighters navigating in confined areas.
  • A Vessel Engaged in Commercial Fishing: Given the limited maneuverability of fishing vessels during operations.
  • A Sailing Vessel: Sailing vessels enjoy priority over power-driven vessels in most situations.

Sailing Vessel Responsibilities

Conversely, a sailing vessel must give way to:

  • A Vessel Not Under Command: As they may be unable to maneuver due to mechanical failure or other issues.
  • A Vessel Restricted in Maneuverability: Including tugboats or deep-draft freighters constrained by their draft or operation.
  • A Vessel Engaged in Commercial Fishing: Recognizing the challenges faced by fishing vessels during their operations.

Departure from Regulations to Avoid Immediate Danger

Taking Necessary Action

In situations where adherence to navigation rules may result in imminent danger, vessel operators are permitted to deviate from these rules to avoid collision. The operator of the vessel required to maintain course and speed should take appropriate action to mitigate the risk of collision, while the give-way vessel remains obligated to take early and substantial action to keep clear.

Narrow Channels

Channel Navigation Protocol

In narrow channels, vessels should, whenever feasible, keep to the right side of the fairway or mid-channel. However, vessels under 65.6 feet in length must not impede the passage of larger, deep-draft vessels navigating within these channels.

Restricted Visibility

Navigation in Poor Visibility Conditions

During restricted visibility, vessels should proceed at a safe speed suitable to the prevailing conditions. Power-driven vessels must keep their engines ready for immediate maneuvering. Additionally, vessels hearing the fog signal of another or encountering a close-quarter situation must reduce speed to the minimum required for safe navigation, potentially even coming to a complete stop if necessary, and navigate with extreme caution until the danger has passed.

Sound Signals for Restricted Visibility

Auditory Signaling Protocol

In or near areas of restricted visibility, vessels must emit specific sound signals to alert nearby vessels of their presence and intentions:

  • Power-Driven Vessel Underway: Emit one prolonged blast at least once every two minutes.
  • Power-Driven Vessel Underway but Stopped: Emit two prolonged blasts in succession, with an interval of about two seconds between them, at intervals of not more than two minutes.
  • Sailing Vessel: Emit one prolonged blast followed by two short blasts at least once every two minutes, whether underway or at anchor.

Boating Accident Reporting

Reporting Requirements

Vessel operators are legally obligated to file a formal written report of any boating accident under specific circumstances:

  • Damage exceeding $2000 to the vessel or its equipment
  • Injury requiring medical assistance beyond First Aid or loss of life
  • Disappearance of any person from a vessel

Reporting Timeframes

Written reports must be submitted within the following timeframes:

  • 48 hours if a person dies within 24 hours of the accident
  • 48 hours if a person involved is injured and unable to perform usual activities
  • 48 hours if a person disappears from a vessel
  • 10 days if an earlier report is not required but becomes necessary
  • 10 days if the boat or property damage exceeds $2000 or results in total boat loss

Filing Procedures

Boating Accident Report forms are available from various sources including local law enforcement, Department Conservation Police Officers, and the DWR website. Completed forms can be submitted in person or mailed to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

Emergency Contact Information

In case of emergencies or to report suspicious activity, use the following contact information:

  • Local Law Enforcement: Contact your county or city law enforcement, sheriff’s office, Conservation Police Officer, or Department dispatcher at 800-237-5712 or dial 911.
  • Boating Accident Reporting: Submit written reports to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
  • National Response Center: Report suspicious activity by calling 877-24WATCH (249-2824) or dialing 911.

Reporting Suspicious Activity

To safeguard America's waterways, it's crucial to report any suspicious behavior or activity promptly. Here's what to look out for:

  • Unattended Vessels or Vehicles: Particularly in unusual locations.
  • Unusual Night Operations: Activities that seem out of the ordinary during nighttime.
  • Items Being Tossed into Waterways: Any objects being thrown into the water or shoreline.
  • Unusual Activity in Uncommon Areas: Passing through regions not typically associated with such activity.
  • Lack of Security Measures: Missing fencing or lighting near sensitive areas.
  • Transfer of People or Items Between Vessels: Suspicious movements between boats or between vessels and shore.
  • Aggressive Behavior: Individuals displaying aggressive conduct.
  • Suspicious Aircraft Activity: Small planes flying over critical locations.
  • Cash Transactions for Short-Term Use: Attempts to buy or rent vessels for brief, undefined periods using cash.
  • Other Suspicious Activity: Any behavior that raises concern or seems out of place.

If you observe any of these signs, promptly report them to the National Response Center at 877-24WATCH (249-2824) or dial 911.

Preventing Boat Theft

To safeguard your boat from theft, follow these preventive measures:

When Buying a Boat:

  • Exercise caution as boats can be stolen.
  • Ensure that the boat's description on the title matches the vessel you're purchasing. Check details such as year, make, length, and hull identification number.
  • Verify that the model and serial number on the outboard motor are intact and have not been tampered with.
  • Be wary of a fresh paint job on a late-model vessel.
  • When purchasing a used boat, prefer dealing with reputable marine dealers or state-licensed brokers.
  • If the price seems unusually low, it could indicate a stolen boat.

Equipment Identification:

  • Mark all equipment upon purchase.
  • For boats built before 1972 without a hull identification number, inscribe the registration number in an inconspicuous area inside the boat.
  • Document the contents of your boat.
  • Store gear and electronics securely when not in use.

Trailerable Boats:

  • Ideally, store the boat and trailer in a locked garage.
  • If stored outdoors, keep boats in the back or side yard where they are not easily visible.
  • Ensure the trailer tongue is not easily accessible.
  • Park another vehicle or large object in front of the trailer to obstruct access.
  • Consider removing one trailer wheel to prevent theft.
  • Invest in a high-quality trailer hitch lock and use it, even when the boat is stored indoors.

Vessel Security:

  • Lock marine hatches, forward hatches, and windows to prevent unauthorized access.

Reporting Incidents

If your boat, trailer, or gear goes missing, report it immediately to the following authorities:

  • Local law enforcement agencies.
  • Your insurance company.
  • Department of Wildlife Resources.
  • The dock or harbormaster.
  • Neighboring boaters.
  • Local newspapers.

Carbon Monoxide Awareness

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a silent danger present on boats, posing serious health risks to occupants. Here's how recreational boaters can stay safe:

  • Understanding CO: CO is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas that can be lethal in small quantities. It is emitted by engines, generators, grills, and other common boating equipment.

  • Prevention Practices:

    • Regular Inspections: Conduct regular professional inspections of your boat to ensure all equipment is functioning properly and free of leaks.
    • Install Detectors: Install and maintain carbon monoxide detectors in living spaces onboard your boat to alert occupants of dangerous CO levels.
    • Beware of "Platform Dragging": Be cautious of the "platform dragging" phenomenon, where exhaust gases are drawn back into the boat when idling or operating in a specific manner.
    • Exhaust Leak Awareness: Be vigilant about exhaust leaks from CO sources. Check for and promptly repair any leaks to prevent CO buildup.
    • Boat Design Considerations: Be aware of specific boat design features, especially in houseboats, that may contribute to CO accumulation. Proper ventilation and exhaust system design are crucial.
    • Avoid Swimming Near Stern: Exercise caution when swimming near the stern of the watercraft, especially when generators, engines, or other CO-producing equipment are in operation.

Capsizing and Falls Overboard Safety Tips

Capsizings and falls overboard are major contributors to fatal boating accidents. To reduce the risk of these incidents, adhere to these fundamental safety guidelines:

  • Wear a Life Jacket: Always wear a properly fitting life jacket while boating. It provides essential buoyancy and can save lives in emergencies.

  • Maintain Three Points of Contact:

    • When moving around the boat, ensure you have three points of contact at all times to prevent falls. For example, keep two feet and one hand in contact with the boat, or vice versa.
    • Even when seated, maintain two points of contact with the boat, such as one foot and one hand.
  • Safe Loading Practices:

    • Load supplies into the boat with caution. Have one person enter the boat first, then pass supplies to them to distribute the weight evenly.
    • When retrieving items from the water, maneuver the boat close to the object and use a boathook or paddle. Maintain three points of contact if reaching outside the boat.
  • Maintain Balance:

    • Keep the load in the boat evenly distributed to maintain stability and prevent capsizing.
    • Avoid attaching the anchor line to the stern of the boat, as this can destabilize the vessel.
  • Anchor Handling:

    • When pulling up the anchor, stay low in the boat and maintain a well-balanced stance to prevent falls or loss of stability.
  • Navigation in Rough Waters:

    • In rough seas, head the bow of the boat directly into the waves or at a 45-degree angle, depending on sea conditions and vessel design. This minimizes the risk of capsizing.
  • Observe Capacity Limits:

    • Adhere to the information provided on the capacity plate of the boat. Never exceed the allowable weight, horsepower rating, or maximum number of passengers specified by the manufacturer.

Enjoying the Water: Safety Tips for Various Activities

Towed Sports Safety

Towed watersports offer exhilarating fun for families, but safety is paramount. Here's what you need to know:

  • Prevent Propeller Strikes: Turn off the boat when riders enter or exit, including swimmers.

  • Hand Signals: Review hand signals with riders for communication: slow down, speed up, and stop.

  • Designated Spotter: Assign a dedicated spotter in addition to the boat driver to ensure safety.

  • Maintain Safe Distance: Stay away from other boats, docks, and hazards, and follow safe speed guidelines.

  • Respect Others: Be considerate of fellow boaters and property owners.

  • Extra Caution with Multiple Riders: Exercise extra caution when towing more than one person.

  • Avoid Congested Areas: Stay clear of crowded waterways and busy channels for everyone's safety.

  • Watch Your Wake: Be mindful of your wake, especially when changing speeds, and adjust accordingly to minimize disturbance.

Paddling Safety

Whether on mountain streams or open waters, paddling requires caution. Follow these safety tips:

  • Wear Life Jackets: Mandatory for all paddlecraft due to the risk of capsizing.

  • Weather Awareness: Stay informed about weather conditions and water levels.

  • Skill-Level Appropriate Areas: Paddle in areas that match your skill level for a safer experience.

  • Notify Someone: Inform someone of your paddling plans and expected return time.

  • Paddle in Groups: Whenever possible, paddle with others rather than alone for added safety.

  • Visibility: Stay visible to other boaters by wearing bright colors or using safety flags, and avoid main channels.

  • Communication: Ensure you have means to communicate in case of emergencies.

  • Dress Appropriately: Dress for potential immersion, especially in cold weather, to prevent hypothermia.

  • Vessel Identification: Obtain free stickers from USCG or DWR to label your paddlecraft for easy identification if lost.

Wild Advisor Pro


The legal advice provided on Wild Advisor Pro is intended as a summary of the hunting, camping, hiking, and fishing laws and regulations and does not constitute legal language or professional advice. We make every effort to ensure the information is accurate and up to date, but it should not be relied upon as legal authority. For the most current and comprehensive explanation of the laws and regulations, please consult the official government websites or a qualified legal professional. Wild Advisor Pro is not responsible for any misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the information presented and shall not be held liable for any losses, damages, or legal disputes arising from the use of this summary information. Always check with the appropriate governmental authorities for the latest information regarding outdoor regulations and compliance.