Boating Rules & Regulations
Summertime is in full swing down here in Southern Maryland. A tell-tale sign the weather has warmed up: waterways crowded with sailboats, speedboats, jetskis and more! Time on the water is as much a staple of a Southern Maryland summer as crab pickin’ on a Sunday. Even with all this access to gorgeous bays and rivers, and with as much time as we spend tubing and waterskiing, there’s a lot most folks don’t know about general boating rules and regulations. We thought now might be a good time to dive into some basic information that will help ensure that your next trip out on the water ends with a crab mallet in your hand, rather than a ticket.
Maryland DNR and the Coast Guard: Who’s in charge?
This is probably the greatest source of confusion for most boaters: who has the authority out on the water? Back before 9/11, the Coast Guard was the only agency that could stop your vessel and board it without a warrant. But ever since 9/11, the Coast Guard has granted some of its federal power to state agencies, giving them permission to stop and board any vessel they deem to be operating in an unsafe or suspicious manner. In Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources has authority to conduct vessel stops and board your boat. So, if you see those blue lights pull up behind you, you must stop your vessel and follow the directions of the officers.
How do you get pulled over in a boat?
When you’re driving a car, police on the road need what is referred to as “reasonable suspicion” that an offense is being committed to pull you over. Observing you driving in a reckless manner or a radar gun measurement over the speed limit are two examples. But this doesn’t give them the authority to search your vehicle. For that there must be “probable cause” which requires more direct evidence that a crime has been committed, for instance contraband laying in plain sight or a drug sniffing dog’s signal.
You don’t have the same Constitutional protections out on the water, however. The US Coast Guard or Maryland DNR can stop and board your vessel at any time, even at the dock, for an inspection to confirm that you have all required safety equipment aboard and that your vessel complies with their regulations. No suspicion or cause is required. Anything they happen to observe after they board (i.e. empty beer cans in the cooler next to the illegally small fish you should have thrown back) can elevate the stop from an inspection to a criminal investigation.
When you get stopped by the authorities on the water, the first thing they’ll ask you to do is “heave to”- this means “stop your boat!” Cut your engine and ask if they’d like you to drop anchor (this may or may not be necessary, depending on if they need to board or not). From there, you do just about everything exactly as you would if you were in a car.
- Keep your hands empty and visible;
- Call everyone to the deck so the officers can see how many passengers are aboard;
- Provide the officers with all requisite documentation;
- Remain calm and courteous to all responding officers.
What else to expect
If you weren’t speeding or anything like that, it’s likely you were pulled over for a random safety check. Maryland DNR will perform the same Vessel Safety Check (VSC) as the Coast Guard. If you fail this safety check during your vessel stop, you can expect any of the following scenarios to play out:
- They could issue you a warning;
- They could issue you a ticket;
- They can issue a “termination of voyage” order. This basically means you’ll need to turn around and head back to wherever you embarked from until any and all violations are corrected.
If you were pulled over for speeding or any other traffic violations, those penalties will be assessed after the boat safety check has been performed.
Boat safely and responsibly!
The Coast Guard conducts Vessel Safety Checks (the same one they and Maryland DNR will perform if they stop you on the water) for free at your boat at a time that is convenient for you. There is no consequence for failing this exam. Be proactive- before heading out on the water, fill out this form to find a Vessel Examiner near you to come out and perform your free VSC. Upon successful completion of the VSC, the Coast Guard will provide you with a VSC decal to place on your boat. This decal indicates that your boat was in full compliance with all Federal and State boating safety regulations at the time of inspection. A successful VSC may also qualify you for a discount from your boat insurance company. When law enforcement sees this sticker, they may forego the safety inspection as they now see you have taken the time to have your boat inspected and clearly passed. That’s not a guarantee, so it’s important to maintain the safety standards on your boat.