Boating Rules in California

How well do you know your boating rules?

As a paddler, oftentimes sharing waterways with boaters, it’s a good idea to be aware of the boating laws in California, (or whichever state you find yourself exploring). As kayaks and SUPs are also classified as types of vessels, many of these rules apply to us paddlers as well.

Arguably the most important of them all is to wear a PFD (personal flotation device), or carry one on board. This goes for boats, as well as kayaks, paddleboards, and all other watercraft. California requires one Coast Guard-approved PFD per person, and those under 13 years of age to be wearing one at all times. Finding the best PFD for you will depend on your activity, location, and fitting. This can all vary, so be sure to check out the different types and uses here before heading out on the water.

View all our PFDs here

During the summertime, night paddles have become increasingly popular, as the water stays warm and the sun is out late. Chasing the sunset out on your board or boat is one of the best ways to spend a summer night. Just remember to prepare for when that sun goes down and the sky darkens. Between sunset and sunrise, all vessels, including paddleboards and kayaks, must display lighting on board to increase visibility. This allows others to clearly see you and those around them to prevent collisions. It’s also a great way to make yourself seen in case you need assistance.

Image: Brite Strike

In addition to lighting, having a sounding device with you can also help signal your intentions or call for help if needed. A sounding device, such as a whistle or horn, is required on powered vessels and recommended on all others. When paddleboarding or kayaking, having a whistle that is connected to, or can be attached to your PFD makes it easily accessible.
Whistles are best used for 1. Reduced visibility  2. The small size of kayaks, SUPs, and canoes  and 3. The ability to sound your intentions or call for help. Be sure to opt for a whistle that works when wet so it can be used in and out of the water.

Image: Maggie Brandenburg, Gear Lab

Paddling provides a great way to get outdoors and relax on the water. And on hot summer days, that often means bringing along some cold drinks to enjoy.
In relation to alcoholic beverages, they are allowed in your own space on boards, boats, and kayaks. In California, there are laws surrounding the amount consumed while paddling watercraft or operating motorized vessels. Similar to a DUI, BUIs (boating under the influence) can be issued for sufficient blood alcohol levels (0.08 or higher). As this amount varies among states, see local boating laws for further information. Be aware, there may also be temporary alcohol bans around certain holiday or event weekends. Paddling safely should always be the goal, which may mean leaving the alcoholic beverage as a post-paddle refresher instead.

Although paddling can often be made an individual experience, we all share these waterways. Learning about boating laws and other water safety rules allow us to be more aware and better enjoy those spaces together.

* As a note - state laws for motorized vessels extend beyond those mentioned here. For more information regarding these watercraft, be sure to reference your state’s official boating laws and regulations.