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Operator Responsibilities

From the moment you put your boat into the water, you are responsible for the safety of everyone on your boat, everything they do on your boat, and anything they do that affects anyone else on the water. There is nothing in the rules that will excuse you from breaking the rules or neglecting any precaution. To avoid personal injury or damage, you must follow these rules:

  • You must control the boat speed and obey all no wake/limited wake restrictions.
  • You should take all practical measures to assure the propeller never hits anything.
  • You should take all practical measures to assure the vessel never hits anything.
  • You must control excessive noise caused by the boat or anyone on it.
  • You must understand the rules and operate your boat in accordance with homeland security measures.
  • You must understand and follow the rules of common boater courtesy.
  • You must understand when to make a departure from these rules to avoid immediate danger.

That is a lot of responsibility. Only if you are ready to take on all that responsibility should you operate a boat.

You and everyone on your boat need to respect the rights of those who live, play or work on the water.

If you are negligent in the way you operate your boat, and someone's life or property is endangered, you are breaking the law. Nationally, 32% of boating citations in recent years were due to improper boat handling (e.g., negligent operation, excessive speed, operating in restricted areas, no wake area violations, collisions, or going too fast at night).

Approximately 80% of all reported boating accidents could have been prevented if the boaters had observed better safety practices. Common boat operator errors include inattention or carelessness, inexperience, excessive speed, failure to note changes in the weather, failure to identify how a significant wind or current change will affect the vessel, and failure to maintain a proper lookout.

Homeland Security

All boaters must be aware of and comply with new homeland security measures set forth by federal, state and local governments. These rules include, but are not limited to, keeping a safe prescribed distance from military and commercial ships and avoiding commercial port operations areas, observing all security zones, following guidelines for appropriate conduct such as not stopping or anchoring beneath bridges or in a channel, and observing and reporting suspicious activity to local law enforcement authorities, the Coast Guard, the port or marina security, or the National Response Center (1-800-424-8802).

Do not approach or challenge any person or vessel acting in a suspicious manner.

The America's Waterway Watch program requests that the public report

  • unusual surveillance of vessel or waterside facility operations,
  • unattended boats near bridges,
  • unusual diving activities,
  • other suspicious activities.

According to the Coast Guard, other suspicious activity might include the following:

  • Filming or taking photos or videos of bridges, tunnels, ferry transport systems, fuel docks, ships, or power plants
  • Diving operations near ships, bridges, water intakes, or other structures
  • Recovering or tossing items into the water or on the shoreline
  • Signaling between boats or ships or to shore
  • Unattended boats or access of a boat by force
  • Transferring people or goods between ships or between ships and the shore outside of a port
  • Missing or broken fencing or lighting around facilities
  • Unusual night operations, particularly near bridges, tunnels, power plants, water intakes/treatment plants, oil or chemical facilities, fuel docks, and military bases.
  • Unusual night operations where running lights are not being used.

The American Boating Association has provided these basic guidelines:

  • Vessels within 500 yards of a U.S. naval vessel must operate at the minimum speed necessary to maintain a safe course and proceed as directed by the official patrol.
  • Recreational and commercial vessels are not allowed within 100 yards of a U.S. naval vessel, unless authorized by the official patrol.
  • Vessels requesting to pass within 100 yards of a U.S. naval vessel must contact the official patrol on VHF-FM channel 16. The official patrol may permit vessels that can operate safely only in a navigable channel to pass within 100 yards of a U.S. naval vessel to ensure a safe passage in accordance with the Navigation Rules.
  • Commercial vessels anchored in a designated anchorage area may be permitted to remain at anchor within 100 yards of passing naval vessels.
  • Mariners who violate a Naval Vessel Protection Zone will be perceived as a threat, and will face a quick, determined, and severe response. Violators are subject to arrest, prosecution, and, if convicted, imprisonment for up to six years and a fine of up to $250,000.

In addition to respecting the Naval Vessel Protection Zone, recreational boaters are advised to stay away from sensitive areas including the following:

  • Commercial port operation areas, especially those that involve military, cruise line, or petroleum facilities
  • Nuclear power plants
  • Military installations
  • Bridge towers
  • Refinery docks
  • Anchored vessels

If you are not sure whether a particular spot is regarded as sensitive, assume that it is.


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