Boating Safety

As a boat operator, passenger, or concerned individual YOU can help prevent injury on our waterways.

In 2022, the U.S. Coast Guard reported:

  • 4,040 recreational boating accidents
  • 636 deaths
  • 2,222 injuries
  • $63 million dollars of property damage

Be Prepared. When boating in open water such as lakes, rivers, ponds, Puget Sound, and the ocean — you can never be totally safe, but you can be better prepared.

Completing the mandatory boating education required to safely operate a recreational boat in open water can save your life and potentially those of others.

Open water is unpredictable, and conditions can change in a matter of seconds!
Some conditions to be aware of include:

  • Currents, riptides & waves
  • Wind & storms
  • Floating impediments like logs & weeds
  • Aquatic creatures
  • Poor visibility
  • Other people in boats or jet skis

Source: National Safety Council (NSC), Washington State Parks Boating Program

Education Requirements

Whether you cruise, sail, kayak, fish, or do yoga on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) — you are responsible to know the laws and basics of boating safety. 

After successfully completing a boating safety course, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission requires the purchase of a $10 Boater Education Card. These may be purchased by submitting a Washington State Parks & Recreation Boating Commission Boater Education Card Application (including copy of your completed boating safety course certificate).

Your Boater Education Card will be mailed within 3-4 weeks. It is valid for your lifetime and meets requirements for recreational boating in Canada and many other states.

Source: BoatUS Foundation

Know the Laws

To ensure the safety of yourself & others, get to know Washington state’s current boating laws

For more helpful information, checkout the Washington State Parks’ Adventures in Boating Washington Handbook including laws on:

  • Proper fueling
  • How to secure a boat to a trailer
  • The right way to launch a boat into the water
  • Navigational rules
  • Steps for handling bad weather & boating emergencies… and more!

Life Jackets SAVE LIVES – WEAR IT!

WEAR IT Washington, in partnership with the National Safe Boating Council

State law requires all vessels (including canoes, kayaks and stand up paddleboards) to carry at least (1) properly fitted U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket (also known as a personal flotation device or PFD) FOR EACH PERSON ABOARD A VESSEL.

Life jackets (PFDs) are one of the single most effective pieces of safety gear on a boat. Study after study show that if you wear your life jacket, you’re more likely to survive if something goes wrong.

Boating and paddling is often a fun activity, but it’s not without any risks. In Washington, many of our waterways are cold year-round. People that drown are often victims of cold-water shock. Anyone can drown regardless of age and swimming capabilities. Protect yourself by always wearing a life jacket. 

Many people assume merely having life jackets onboard is sufficient. However, accidents happen rapidly and without warning. Usually, there is not enough time to grab a life jacket, so they should always be worn!

A life jacket only works if you WEAR IT.

KNOW THE LAWS >>

Boating & drinking alcohol ARE NOT not a good mix!

In 2021, alcohol was the #1 known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, accounting for 86 deaths.

In Washington state, alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in 17% of boating fatalities in the state. There are penalties for operating a boat under the influence (BUI):

  • It is a gross misdemeanor that is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
  • Officers with probable cause can ask the boat operator to submit to a breathalyzer test. If the boater refuses to take the test, he or she will be issued a Class 1 Civil Infraction.
  • The maximum penalty for refusal to take a breathalyzer test is $1,000; however, RCW 3.62.090(the public safety and education assessment) adds 105% to the penalty, so the total fine could be up to $2,050.
  • The legal limit for operating under the influence of alcohol on our waterways is .08 and the legal limit for boating under the influence of marijuana is 5.0 nanograms.
  • The law applies to all boats, motorized and non-motorized, which includes, kayaks, canoes and rafts.

Learn more about Washington state boating laws & regulations >>

A boater who is involved in an accident MUST STOP!

A boater who is involved in an accident MUST STOP their vessel immediately at the scene of the accident and assist injured people or anyone in danger, unless doing so would endanger his or her own vessel or passengers. In some circumstances, the boater operating the vessel must submit a written accident report.

Accident report forms are available from Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission and local law enforcement marine units.

Washington State law requires the operator of a recreational vessel involved in an accident to file a Washington Boat Accident Report (PDF) when:

  • Loss of life occurs
  • Injury occurs which requires medical treatment beyond first aid
  • A person disappears from a vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury
  • Property damage is in excess of $2,000, or there is complete loss of a vessel

If there is an injury, disappearance or death, a report must be submitted within 48 hours. Reports in other accidents must be submitted within 10 days. If the operator cannot submit the report, the owner of the vessel is responsible.

Reports must be submitted to the law enforcement agency (PDF) that has jurisdiction where the accident occurred. If you are not sure what agency has the authority, contact the Washington State Boating Program by email or call (360) 902-8555.

The report is confidential and will only be used by government agencies for statistical purposes. Failure of an operator to submit a report can result in a fine.

Register your boat with the Washington State Department of Licensing

To navigate, operate, employ, or moor your vessel in the state of Washington, you must have a Washington title, registration card, and registration decals, except when your vessel is:

  • a canoe, kayak, or not propelled by a motor or sail
  • less than 16 feet in length and has a motor of 10 horsepower or less and is used on non-federal waters only
  • properly registered by a resident of another state or country who uses Washington waters for 60 days or fewer
  • See also other exemptions

REMEMBER: Your registration card (the cutout portion of the Vessel Registration Certificate) must be onboard whenever you use your vessel.

Visit this Reference Guide containing national data about specific state boating laws, regulations, and other areas of boating safety interest.
 
Counties and cities may also have further restrictions – so remember to check in with them before heading out on the water!

Source: Washington State Legislature, Washington State Recreation and Conservation OfficeState Law Dashboards – NASBLA, Washington State Parks Boating Program

Be Prepared

Why should you take the time to make a Float Plan?

The answer is simple… there are just too many facts that need to be accurately remembered and ultimately conveyed in an emergency situation!

Without a Float Plan, you are counting on someone else, a friend, neighbor, or family member to remember detailed information that rescue personnel need to find you – important information that can make a difference in the outcome.

What type of boaters should make a Float Plan?

  • Kayakers
  • Sport fisherman
  • Hunters
  • Jet skiers
  • Water skiers
  • Family day cruisers
  • Private charter boat services
  • Canoeists
  • Rowers
  • Rafters
  • Sail boaters
  • Power boaters
  • Stand-up paddlers

Typically, the Boat Operator is the individual who prepares the Float Plan. However, all persons onboard should be aware of the importance of letting someone know where you are going and when you will be back. Don’t be afraid to ask the operator if they have left a Float Plan with a reliable person.

It is also recommended that you include a recent photo of your vessel.

BE PREPARED – Make a Float Plan TODAY >> 

In 2021, where cause of death was known:

  • 81% of people drowned from recreational boating incidents in the U.S.
  • 83% of those drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket or other type of personal floatation device (PFD)

Washington state law (RCW 79A.60.160) requires children ages 12 years and younger to wear a Coast Guard approved life jacket or vest on vessels less than 19 feet long.

Download the U.S. Coast Guard’s guide on How to Choose the Right Life Jacket >> 

Cold Water Immersion

Boating in cold weather can be exhilarating, but it also puts you at risk of falling into dangerously cold waters. Even boating in warm weather can be dangerous if the water is much colder than the air.

Cold water immersion is almost always the result of a capsize or swamping of, or falling overboard from, a boat under 26 feet. In each distinct phase, a person (without a life jacket) faces a MUCH HIGHER risk of drowning in cold water.

Phases include:

  1. Cold Water Shock Response – Falling into cold water provokes an immediate gasp reflex. If your head is under water, you’d inhale water instead of air and it is unlikely you’ll resurface if you’re not wearing a life jacket. Initial shock can cause panic, hyperventilation, and increase heart rate leading to a heart-attack. This stage lasts 3-5 minutes and at this point you should concentrate on staying afloat with your head above water.
  2. Swimming Failure – In just 3-30 minutes, the body will experience swimming failure. Due to loss of muscle coordination, swimming becomes a struggle and the body tends to go more vertical in the water making any forward movement increasingly difficult. That’s why it is not recommended to swim for help, but remain with the boat or something else that floats while keeping your head above water while awaiting rescue.
  3. Immersion Hypothermia – True hypothermia sets in after about 30 minutes. Most victims never make it to this stage since 75% of individuals succumb and die in the earlier stages of cold water immersion. At this stage, regardless of your body type, size, insulation of clothing, acclimatization and other factors, your body’s core temperature gets dangerously low. Your survival chances are greatly lessened at this stage. Victims are usually rendered unconscious in this stage.
  4. Post Rescue Collapse – A rescued victim must be handled very carefully. When a person is removed from cold water, the body will react to the surrounding air and the body position. Blood pressure often drops, inhaled water can damage the lungs, and heart problems can develop as cold blood from the extremities is released into the body core. Proper medical attention is essential to re-warm the body safely. Seek immediate trained medical treatment for the victim.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

  • Intense shivering
  • Loss of coordination
  • Mental confusion
  • Cold & blue (cyanotic) skin
  • Weak pulse
  • Uncontrolled breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Enlarged pupils

Once a victim’s shivering stops, their core body temperature begins to critically drop. Follow these steps to prevent a victim’s body from cooling:

  • Gently move the victim to a warm shelter.
  • Check for breathing and a heartbeat. Start CPR if necessary.
  • If you have dry clothes or a blanket, remove the victim’s wet clothes. Use a minimum of body movement, since rough handling can cause cardiac arrest. Cut the clothes off, if necessary.
  • If possible, keep the victim in the same position as they were rescued to prevent a stroke caused by moving them incorrectly. If moving is necessary (such as from a boat to shelter), carefully lay the victim in a level face-up position with a blanket or some other insulation underneath.
  • Wrap the victim in a dry blanket or dry clothes. If possible, warm the clothes first. If a stocking cap is available, put it on the victim’s head since a great deal of heat is lost from the head.
  • If the person is awake and coherent, give them warm (not hot) liquids. Warm hot tea with sugar or honey or slightly-cooled hot chocolate are good since sugar can still be absorbed even if the stomach has shut down.

REMEMBER TO NEVER:

  • Give a hypothermic person alcohol. Alcohol dilates (opens) your veins, which will make the body lose heat more rapidly. Also, do not give food or drink to unconscious victims.
  • Apply heat to the arms and legs. This forces cold blood from the arms and legs back toward the heart, lungs, and brain, lowering core body temperature and causing “after drop” which can be fatal.
  • Massage the victim or give the victim a hot bath. Cardiac arrest is a frequent result of hypothermia, and moving the victim roughly can be a catalyst for this condition.

Source: Washington State Legislature, King CountyU.S. Coast Guard, BoatUS Foundation

Swimming in Open Water

Swimming in natural waters (e.g. streams, rivers, lakes, oceans) is very different from swimming in a swimming pool.

  • Water currents can tire you out and sweep you away
  • Distance across water is greater than it looks
  • Cold water can shock your body and make it difficult to swim
  • Water depth can suddenly change to above chin level
  • Underwater hazard like trees and rocks can trap you and keep you from swimming back to shore

Preparation is key to bringing everyone home from a fun day in the water

  • Find out if swimming is allowed in the park before you head out
  • Check the “Plan Your Visit” section on the park’s website or contact the park to find out about water regulations and water safety
  • Leave a trip plan with your travel details with a friend or family member
  • Bring a friend so you are not swimming alone

Source: National Park Service

Life Jacket Loaner Program

How does this FREE statewide program work?

If you go out boating and don’t have a life jacket (PFD) – or find that yours doesn’t properly fit – you can use this NEW interactive map to locate a Life Jacket Loaner Station!

Participating marinas, boat ramps, paddle craft launch sites and Washington State Parks are now equipped with infant, child, youth and adult-size life jackets (PFDs) for recreational boaters to borrow—at no charge.

When finished, simply return the borrowed life jackets (PFDs) to the same station where they were borrowed.

In the case where there is NO Life Jacket Loaner Station available to you, contact your local sheriff or police department as they (may) have available life jackets (PFDs) available to borrow.

Source: Washington State Parks Boating Program, Seattle Children’s

Interested in hosting a Life Jacket Loaner Station?

The Washington State Parks Boating Program, in partnership with the Washington Drowning Prevention Network, can help you to provide life jackets (PFDs) to the public through a FREE statewide Life Jacket Loaner Station program.

The goal of this program is to increase the use of life jackets (PFDs) and to educate recreational boaters about the importance of wearing a properly fitted life jacket. Each host will receive signage with fitting instructions (in English and Spanish) that should be prominently displayed at their Life Jacket Loaner Station.

Apply today >>

Source: Washington State Parks Boating Program, Seattle Children’s

May 15 is Water Safety Day!

Water Safety Day, recognized by the State of Washington, recognizes its first year in 2024! 

Water Safety Day was created with the passing of House Bill 1750, also known as Yori’s Law. The bill was sponsored by Chezik Tsunoda, a water safety advocate and founder of the non-profit, No More Under. The day aims to raise awareness of the danger of drowning and promote water safety skills.

Learn more about how the HIPRC is taking part in 2024 >> 

Safety Pledges

Take this pledge in partnership with the Seattle Mariners

Recreational boating is a popular pastime in Washington state — just ask any of the several hundred thousand residents who own at least one canoe, kayak, rowboat, personal watercraft, stand up paddle board, drift boat, runabout, sailboat, motor yacht or some other type of recreational vessel. Boats and boaters are everywhere! 

Boating, however, isn’t without its risks. The chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest can be an unforgiving environment, and safety must be on the minds of everyone who plays in and around it.

PLEDGE TODAY to be a safe boater >>

Take this pledge in partnership with the National Safe Boating Council

Real boaters always #WEARIT. Be an example and save lives!

Recreational boating and water activities are enjoyed by millions of Americans each year. Boating safety advocates recommend all boaters and passengers not only have a life jacket – but wear it at all times while boating!

Regardless of your age or experience level, LIFE JACKETS SAVE LIVES!

PLEDGE TODAY to wear your life jacket >>

Resources

Life Jacket Coupon

  • Big 5 Sporting Goods customers in Washington State and North Idaho can redeem one coupon per person (in-store only) for 20% OFF a regular priced and in stock life jacket. Grab your coupon today >> 

U.S. Boating Law Administrator Directory

King County Area Public Lifeguarded Beaches

  • Public Health – Seattle & king County has created a Lifeguard Resource Guide to help you find nearby public beaches equipped with lifeguards and life jackets. Find a beach near you >>

American Red Cross

Water Safety Resources for Parents, Children & Teens

  • Have fun and be safe using these resources when swimming, wearing life jackets and addressing other water safety measures in and around your home.

Protect Your Natural Hair (while swimming)

Life Jacket Loaner Program

  • Washington State Parks has an active map for their Life jacket Loaner Program as well on their website. NOTE: Some life jacket loaner stands may be closed — always check when planning your visit!

International Life Saving Federation’s Drowning Chain of Survival

  • All nations benefit from a simple, clear Drowning Chain of Survival. In high income nations, this tool will refine prevention and the call for action. In low and middle income nations, this tool is a guide for policymaking, resource allocation and priority setting in drowning prevention. 

NEW Open Water Swimming Safety Toolkit

  • Prevent Child Injury addresses the increased risk of drowning among teenagers who swim in open water and encourages parents and caregivers to talk to their teens about making safe and smart decisions when swimming in open water.

Seattle Children’s and Washington State Drowning Prevention Network (WA DPN)

  • Seattle Children’s and the WA DPN work together to provide information and resources on drowning prevention and water safety. Fill out this email list request form to join the WA DPN, which provides a forum for water safety and injury prevention organizations in Washington state to work together to prevent drowning.

Drowning Prevention Toolkit

  • Drowning can happen to any family. It’s quick, and it’s silent. Learn more on how to prevent and keep children safe with the American Academy of Pediatric’s NEW Drowning Prevention Toolkit.

Interested in becoming a lifeguard?

  • Sign-up today! In addition to covering the costs of your Lifeguard Certification, HIPRC will also work with community partners to help you find job opportunities as a lifeguard. To certify: You MUST be 15 years-old by the final day of the FREE Lifeguard Training.

SPLASHForward’s Water Safety Resources

#RecreateResponsibly

#PaddleWise

  • Check out Paddle Wise’s Responsibility Code for River Runners – Be your best self on the water and help protect, restore and maintain access to our rivers! Download this FREE Toolkit to help spread the word on how we can share our rivers responsibly.

#WearingIt

Downloadables

Visit our Digital Resource Center to learn more about Boating Safety and Drowning Prevention — plus, more injury and violence prevention topics year-round!