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Personal Injury

Virginia Boat Owner Responsibilities


Our recent blog post about boating accidents and injuries addressed how lack of operator compliance with boating laws and regulations can cause a boating accident. For both liability and safety reasons, everyone who owns and operates a boat in Virginia needs to know — and comply with — Virginia laws and regulations that establish boat owner responsibilities. Our summary below does not include a comprehensive list of all requirements that apply to boat owners, but it does cover the key laws and regulations that boat owners need to know.

Boating Safety Education Laws

Virginia does not require you to have a license to operate a boat in the state. However, the law does require that everyone of any age who operates a boat with a motor of 10 horsepower or more must take a boating safety course and be able to provide proof of compliance with the requirement.

On completion of a course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), you receive a certificate and card that you must carry with you whenever you operate a boat. You are only required to take the course once.

For visiting non-resident boaters, Virginia recognizes boating education cards from other states that meet NASBLA requirements. If you are operating a boat registered in another state, Virginia provides reciprocity if you meet the applicable boating safety education requirements of your state of residence. There are a few other limited exceptions to the boating safety education requirement.

In addition to boat operators, any operator of a personal watercraft (PWC) — such as a Sea-Doo®, Waverunner®, or Jet Ski® — must also complete an accepted boating safety course. In Virginia, no person under age 14 is permitted to operate a PWC under any circumstances. Operators who are 14 or 15 years old must carry proof of completing the required safety course.

Boat Registration Requirements

All recreational motorboats used on Virginia public waters are required to have a title and be registered with the state. The requirement applies to any size, type, or horsepower motor. If a boat is used principally in Virginia, it must be registered and titled here, rather than in a different state.

A boat brought into Virginia from another state may be operated on the other state’s valid registration for up to 90 days before it is registered in Virginia. Any motorboat operated on Virginia public waters must carry a valid registration.

There are numerous regulations and criteria that apply to boat titles and registration. Generally, registration is valid for a three-year period and must be current to operate the boat. Registration numbers are required to be displayed on the boat in a specific manner. Decals are provided with each three-year registration and must be displayed alongside the registration number.

Boating liability insurance is not required in Virginia, either to own or operate a boat. However, boating liability insurance is available and can protect you and your boat in the event you are in an accident.

Equipment Requirements

In addition to requiring display of your boat’s registration number and decal, Virginia has specific boating equipment requirements. The requirements vary somewhat depending on the size of the boat, but generally they include:

  • Life jackets (with specific detailed requirements)
  • Fire extinguisher(s)
  • Backfire flame arrestor
  • Ventilation system
  • Muffler (inboard engines)
  • Horn, whistle, or bell (sound-producing device)
  • Visual distress signals
  • Navigation lights

Detailed requirements apply to each category of equipment.

Enforcement of Boating Laws and Regulations

Virginia boating laws and regulations are enforced primarily by Conservation Police Officers who work for the Department of Gaming and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). They are law enforcement officers with full police power. The officers have the authority to stop and board your boat at any time.

There are many types of boating conduct and conditions that can warrant action by the Conservation Police. This list is not comprehensive, but it includes examples of the types of situations that constitute violations of state boating laws and regulations:

  • Failure to comply with registration and title requirements
  • Failure to comply with specific equipment requirements
  • Reckless operation of a boat or PWC
  • Operation of a boat or PWC while intoxicated
  • Failure to stop and render assistance at an accident
  • Failure to file an accident report
  • Failure to obey regulatory water markers
  • Operation of a motorboat in an area restricted to swimming
  • Failure to abide by boat speed laws
  • Failure to abide by environmental laws applicable to Virginia waterways

Virginia Boat Owner Responsibilities for Safety

Safe navigation of Virginia public and private waterways should always be at the top of any list of boat owner responsibilities. Operator error, inexperience, and inattention contribute to many accidents. If you allow anyone else to operate your boat, make certain that person has taken the required safety course.

Equipment failure can also cause accidents. Of all the equipment requirements, having the right type of life jackets and requiring everyone onboard to wear them is the most critical. Statistics from the United States Coast Guard establish that most boating deaths occur from drowning. Of the fatalities, more than 80 percent of the victims were not wearing life jackets. Ensuring that you have and use all the right equipment, including life jackets, is critically important — and it can save lives.

For full details about Virginia boat owner responsibilities, you can read or download DGIF’s Virginia Watercraft Owner’s Guide.

Talk With a Virginia Beach Personal Injury Attorney About Your Boating Accident Injuries

If you’ve been seriously injured in a boating accident, and faulty equipment or another person’s negligence may be the cause, talking with an experienced, knowledgeable personal injury attorney is essential. If your accident was in Virginia, our state’s laws will determine whether you can recover compensation, as well as what compensation you can recover. Having a local attorney represent you is very important in a boating accident.

Virginia Beach personal injury attorney Jeff Brooke has the experience to make a difference in a boating accident case. If you or a loved one suffered significant injuries — or if you lost a loved one — in a boating accident in Virginia, we are here to help. Contact us by phone at (757) 552-6055 or by using our online contact form.

Jeff Brooke is a personal injury attorney devoted to helping individuals who have suffered serious and catastrophic injuries or lost a loved one as a result of someone else’s negligent and careless actions. The Jeff Brooke Team serves all of southeastern Virginia. The firm helps clients in the Greater Tidewater and Greater Hampton Roads areas, including in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Chesterfield. The Jeff Brooke Team also handles cases in northeastern North Carolina, including the Outer Banks.


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