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North Carolina State Specific Regulations

Personal Watercraft

  1. No one under 14 years old can operate a PWC in North Carolina waters. A person at least 14 years old but less than 16 years old, can operate a PWC if they are riding with a person who is at least 18; or if the youth has first successfully completed an approved boating safety education course (proof of age and safety course completion must be carried by the youth during operation of the PWC). meets North Carolina's boater education requirement.

  2. It is unlawful for the owner of a PWC to knowingly allow a person under the age of 16 to operate a PWC unless they have first completed an approved boating safety education course. It is unlawful for a person who has temporary or permanent responsibility for a person under the age of 16 to knowingly allow that person to operate a PWC unless they have first completed an approved boating safety education course.

PWC Operation

  1. No one can operate a PWC on North Carolina waters between sunset and sunrise.

  2. All PWC riders, passengers and those being towed must wear approved personal flotation devices.

  3. If the PWC is equipped with a lanyard-type engine cut off switch, the lanyard must be worn by the operator at all times.

  4. A PWC must have a rearview mirror or an observer on board besides the operator to legally tow someone on skis or similar device.

  5. PWCs must be operated at all times in a reasonable and prudent manner.

  6. Maneuvers that endanger people or property constitute reckless operation.

  7. No person shall operate a personal watercraft on the waters of this State at greater than no-wake speed within 100 feet of an anchored or moored vessel, a dock, pier, swim float, marked swimming area, swimmers, surfers, persons engaged in angling, or any manually operated propelled vessel, unless the personal watercraft is operating in a narrow channel.

  8. No person shall operate a personal watercraft in a narrow channel at greater than no-wake speed within 50 feet of an anchored or moored vessel, a dock, pier, swim float, marked swimming area, swimmers, surfers, persons engaged in angling, or any manually operated propelled vessel.

  9. No person shall operate a PWC towing another person on water skis or similar device unless the total number of persons operating, observing, and being towed does not exceed the number of passengers identified by the manufacturer as the maximum safe load for the vessel.

Renting PWCs

No one shall rent a PWC to someone under 16 unless that person meets the conditions listed under "Personal Watercraft" section #1 (see above).

A minimum of $300,000 insurance must be carried on each PWC that is rented to the public.

Personal Flotation Devices

Children under the age of 13 aboard a vessel that is underway on North Carolina waters (both federal and state) are required to wear personal flotation devices (PFDs), or lifejackets, except those children that are below deck or in enclosed cabins.

  1. No person may use a recreational vessel unless each child under 13 years old on board is wearing an appropriate PFD approved by the Coast Guard unless: each child not wearing such a PFD is below decks or in an enclosed cabin or the vessel is not under way. (Vessels that are anchored or tied to shore are not underway.)

All recreational vessels must have one Type I, II or III PFD of a suitable size for each person aboard and each skier being towed. In addition, recreational vessels 16 feet and over must also have one throwable Type IV PFD. Required PFDs must be readily accessible.

TYPE I PFD or Offshore Life Jacket

  • Has the most buoyancy

  • Effective for all waters, especially open, rough, or remote waters where rescue may be delayed

  • Designed to turn most unconscious wearers in the water to a face-up position

  • Comes in two sizes: Adult size provides at least 22 pounds of buoyancy, the child size, 11 pounds, minimum.

TYPE II PFD or Near-shore Buoyant Vest

  • Intended for calm, inland water or where there is a good chance of quick rescue

  • Turns some unconscious wearers to a face-up position

  • Adult size provides at least 15.5 pounds buoyancy; a medium child size provides 11 pounds.

  • Infant and small child sizes each provide at least 7 pounds buoyancy.

TYPE III PFD, or Flotation Aid

  • Good for calm, inland water, or where there is a good chance of quick rescue.

  • Designed so that wearers can put themselves in a face-up position in the water. Wearer may have to tilt the head back to avoid turning face down.

  • Same minimum buoyancy as a TYPE II PFD.

  • Examples: float coats, fishing vests, and vests designed for various water sports.


  • Intended for specific activities.

  • May be carried instead of another PFD only if used according to label.

  • Some provide hypothermia protection.

  • Examples: deck suits, work vests, board sailing vests, and hybrid PFDs.

Notes on Inflatables and Hybrids

  • TYPE V HYBRIDS: contain a small amount of inherent buoyancy & an inflatable chamber. Must be worn when underway to be acceptable.

  • Type I, II, III, and V Inflatables: adult inflatables are not approved for persons under the age of 16. Acceptable inflatables are available for persons under 16, but label must state that it has been approved for wear by a child.


Speed Limits and Reckless Operation

  1. Although local conditions may warrant the imposition of definite limitations on speed of vessels, a general speed limit is that which is implied in safe vessel operation under existing circumstances. Speed which is excessive under the circumstances, and which endangers persons or property, is one form of reckless operation which is prohibited by North Carolina boating law.

  2. Watercraft entering, leaving or passing within 50 yards of a state-owned or controlled boating and fishing access area must do so at "no-wake" speed.

  3. No person shall operate any motorboat or vessel, or manipulate any water skis, surfboard, or similar device in a reckless or negligent manner so as to endanger life, limb or property of any person.

Navigation Rules

The State of North Carolina adopts and enforces all federally mandated boating safety laws. See Module 5 in the Handbook for more information.

Every vessel operating in the State of North Carolina shall carry and use safety equipment in accordance with U. S. Coast Guard requirements as specified in the Code of Federal Regulations. Additionally, every vessel shall display the lights and shapes required by the navigation rules.

Reckless Operation Includes

  1. Unreasonable or unnecessary weaving through congested boat traffic.

  2. Jumping the wake of a vessel within 100 feet of the vessel or when visibility is obstructed.

  3. Intentionally approaching a vessel in order to swerve at the last moment.

  4. Operating contrary to the "rules of the road".

  5. Following too closely to another vessel, including another personal watercraft. The term "following too closely" means proceeding in the same direction and operating at a speed in excess of 10 miles per hour when approaching within 100 feet to the rear or 50 feet to the side of another vessel that is underway unless that vessel is operating in a narrow channel, in which case a personal watercraft may operate at the speed and flow of other vessel traffic.

Accident Reporting

Any accident involving death, disappearance or personal injury beyond first aid, or damage greater than $500 must be reported. Death, disappearance and injury cases must be reported within 48 hours. Other accidents must be reported within 10 days. Accidents should be reported to the Wildlife Resources Commission on a form provided by them.

Boating While Intoxicated

No person shall operate any motorboat or vessel, or manipulate any water skis, surfboard or similar device while under the influence of an impairing substance, nor operate any motor vessel after consuming alcohol sufficient to cause a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or greater.

Diving and Snorkeling

All divers, in waters open to boating, shall display a divers flag (red with white diagonal stripe) in the area in which the diving occurs. They may not display the flag when not engaged in diving or at any location where it will unreasonably obstruct navigation.

Boaters should stay at least 50 feet away from a diver-down flag.

Water Skiing

  1. No person shall tow a person on water skis, surfboards or similar device:

    1. In a reckless and dangerous manner.

    2. While under the influence of an impairing substance.

    3. Where the direction or location of the device may be manipulated or controlled from the boat so as to cause the person being towed to collide with any object or person.

  2. Water skiing is prohibited between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise.

  3. The vessel towing the skier shall be equipped with a rear vision mirror or carry an observer (not the boat operator) or the person being towed is wearing a PFD.

Colonial Waterbird Nesting Areas

Coastal islands and beach areas posted as Colonial Waterbird Nesting Areas are being managed to protect nesting populations of pelicans, terns, gulls, herons and egrets. Special regulations apply. Access is prohibited on these areas from April 1 to August 31, except by special permit. Dogs may not be allowed on these areas during this time period. Access on these areas from September 1 to March 30 will be allowed as authorized by the land owner.


  1. All vessels operated on North Carolina waters must be numbered except:

    1. Vessels documented by the United States Bureau of Customs or any foreign vessels using North Carolina waters temporarily.

    2. Vessels owned by the United States Government or by a state, county or municipality.

    3. Vessels used exclusively as life boats.

    4. Sailboats not over 14 ft. in length at the load waterline.

    5. Vessels with no means of propulsion other than drifting or manual paddling, poling or rowing.

    6. Vessels with a current number from another state or country temporarily using North Carolina waters. (Less than 90 consecutive days.)

    7. The Certificate of Vessel Number must be onboard when the vessel is in use.

    8. The vessel's number must be painted or permanently affixed on the forward half of each side of the vessel.

Local Restrictions

Some counties have more restrictive local laws or ordinances pertaining to vessel operation. Information regarding these restrictions may be obtained from local governments and sheriffs' departments.

Official copies of local regulations applying to specific waters may be obtained on request from the Wildlife Resources Commission.

North Carolina and federal boating laws, presented in their entirety, can be found by consulting North Carolina State Law. These laws are subject to change. It is the responsibility of the operator to be aware of the most current laws when using a boat.

Certain bodies of water in North Carolina have local restrictions as to type and size of watercraft or motor horsepower, restricted use areas, boat speed, and times for use. Check with the local authorities for these additional restrictions.

Wildlife Resources Comm.
Archdale Bldg.
Raleigh NC 27604-1188
Boat registration:

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