If you want to operate a motorized vessel on California waterways, then you may be required to have a California Boater Card. The law is being phased in over 8 years, and by 2025 all boaters will be required to have a California Boater Card. So, if you’re planning on boating in California, make sure you get your card!
A California Boater Card can be obtained online at any age. However, California Boater Card age requirements prohibit anyone under 16 years of age from operating a boat or Personal Watercraft with a motor larger than 15 horsepower, with the exception of sailboats under 30 feet in length and dinghys between moored boats or between a moored boat and the shoreline.
California boaters between the ages of 12 and 15 may operate boats with motors over 15 horsepower if supervised by an adult 18 or older in possession of a boater card.
By 2025, boat operators of all ages will be required to possess a valid California Boater Card. California Harbors and Navigation Code Section 678.11(b) contains the following phase-in schedule based on operator age (effective January 1st of each year):
- 2018: Persons 20 years of age or younger
- 2019: Persons 25 years of age or younger
- 2020: Persons 35 years of age or younger
- 2021: Persons 40 years of age or younger
- 2022: Persons 45 years of age or younger
- 2023: Persons 50 years of age or younger
- 2024: Persons 60 years of age or younger
- 2025: All persons regardless of age
In order to keep children safe while on a vessel, all those under the age of 13 must wear a life jacket at all times while the vessel is underway. The life jacket must be approved by the US Coast Guard and be in good, usable condition. Some exceptions apply:
- Children wearing a harness tethered to a sailboat
- Children in an enclosed cabin
- Children on a vessel while an emergency rescue operation is underway
Boats under 16 feet in length
In order to ensure the safety of all passengers, boats 16 ft. in length and under must be equipped with US Coast Guard-approved life jackets (Type I, II, III or V) for every person on board.
Boats over 16 feet in length
In order to ensure the safety of all passengers, boats 16 ft. in length and over must be equipped with US Coast Guard-approved life jackets (Type I, II, III or V) for every person on board. Additionally, a type IV flotation device that is designed to be thrown is required.
Canoes, kayaks and paddle boards
Life jacket requirements for canoes, kayaks and paddle boards are the same as those for boats under 16 feet in length.
PWC and persons being towed
All persons operating a PWC or being towed behind a vessel are required to wear a US Coast Guard-approved life jacket (Type I, II, III or V).
For more information, see California Life Jacket Laws and Regulations.
In California, all boats must be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). You can register your boat at any DMV location. When you register your boat, you will receive registration stickers, a Certificate of Number, and a Certificate of Ownership.
Registration is not required for the following vessels:
- Vessels 8 ft in length or under, propelled by sail (i.e. sail boards)
- U.S. Coast Guard Documented Vessels
- Vessels that are currently registered and stored in another state (cannot remain in California over 90 consecutive days)
- Vessels registered in another country
- Manually propelled vessels including canoes, kayaks or SUPs
- Some vessels owned by public agencies
- Lifeboats on a ship, if used solely for lifesaving purposes
For more information, see California Boat Registration Number and Sticker Information.
Boating under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of the two is illegal in the State of California. No person is permitted by law to operate a vessel or towed device (water skis, wakeboard, etc.) while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Boating Under the Influence (BUI) criteria:
- 21 years of age or older with a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher
- 21 years of age or younger with a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0.01 or higher
If you are caught operating a boat while under the influence and you are under the age of 21, you may be subject to a fine of up to $250 and participation in an alcohol education or community service program. If you are 21 years of age or older, you may be subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 6 months in jail.
For more information, see Boating Under the Influence in California.
Personal Watercraft (PWC) in California must follow the same rules as other motorized vessels. This includes registering with the state of California and having a B-1 Class Fire Extinguisher fitted on board.
The following PWC regulations also apply:
- Life jackets must be worn by all passengers and the operator
- Whenever a PWC is used to tow someone (e.g. a water skier or a tube rider), there needs to be enough seating capacity for the operator, observer, and rider.
- California requires PWC operators to have a kill switch with lanyard or a self-circling device. The lanyard must be fastened to the operator’s clothing or PFD.
- The operation of PWCs may be restricted in certain zones by local municipalities.
- Wake jumping is forbidden within 100 feet of the stern of another vessel.
- Under the following conditions, PWCs must operate at slow-no-wake speeds of no more than 5 mph:
- Within 200 feet of a surfer, diving flag, bank or wading angler, dock, swim float, boat launch, ramp, pier, marina, floating home, moorage area, or boathouse
- Within 100 feet of any swimmer
- Within 200 feet of shoreline on all lakes, reservoirs, and bays with bathers
For more information, see California Personal Watercraft (PWC) Laws and Regulations.