The Ever-Changing World of Recreational Boating Law Enforcement

Jeff Decker US Coast Guard
Jeff Decker
US Coast Guard

The world in which we live is constantly changing, and recreational boating is changing right along with it. When it comes to enforcing the recreational boating laws, officers have to keep up with the changes while at the same time never losing sight of the fundamentals and guiding principles of the job.

Checking boating safety equipment requirements is a foundational part of the job and should be second nature to all maritime law enforcement officers. Whether it is life jackets, visual distress signals, or fire extinguishers, knowing how to quickly and confidently check the gear for compliance is essential.

Being confident in knowing the essential cornerstones lets you concentrate on things that are out of the ordinary or new and different. It requires constant vigilance to keep up with changes, new information, new laws, and the unique activities invented by the boating enthusiast over the past 15 years.

Our officers are out there ensuring compliance with the education laws. In the year 2000, just a handful of states had boater education laws requiring certain segments of the boating population to carry proof of passing a boating education course. Today, the majority of states have some form of mandatory boater education, with a few enacting laws requiring all motorboat operators, regardless of age, to carry proof of passing a course.


Law enforcement officers are enforcing life jacket laws across the nation. In 2002, the federal requirement to have a child under the age of 13 wear a life jacket when underway on a boat, unless they were below decks or in an enclosed cabin, came into effect. Many states already had a child life jacket law on the books; others adopted the federal rule or passed some variation of the federal law at the state level. Amazingly, there are still some agencies that do not have a policy requiring employees, who operate or ride on government-owned boats, to wear a life jacket. Always wearing a life jacket, whether for recreation or while on the job, is one of our guiding principles.

FL_4 DSC_0001 (60)Our officers are constantly out there on the water identifying new hazards and are taking positive steps to document them, and if necessary, eliminate the unsafe actions. We saw the sport of teak surfing take off and found that carbon monoxide was a factor in some fatal teak surfing incidents. A handful of states deemed teak surfing too dangerous and against the law, and their officers began enforcing laws prohibiting this activity.

Then there was the issue of houseboats with a design flaw that vented the carbon monoxide from generator exhaust into the area under the swim platform. This prompted a national recall to make the fix and prevent death by carbon monoxide poisoning. And the officers were out there, on the water, spreading the word about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.


Boating under the influence of alcohol incidents have made headlines for years. Now with a few states legalizing marijuana, the law enforcement community has seen a need to develop better techniques to detect when a person is operating a vessel while under the influence of drugs as well as alcohol.

Today we have people paddling their stand up paddleboards everywhere on the water. We now have companies selling electric motor kits for turning SUPs into powerboats. Manufacturers are designing ATVs and motorcycles to convert automatically into amphibious watercraft. We have boaters who found surfing the wake of a boat more exhilarating than wakeboarding, and there are daredevils flying above the water while hooked to a water jet-pack device. 

There seems to be no end in sight when it comes to the constantly changing creativity of the recreational boater. And, as time goes by, they are certain to think of new and different activities to ramp up the thrill of the adrenaline dump. Some of these activities are sure to put these thrill seekers or other boaters at risk. If they do so, our ever vigilant law enforcement officers will be right there to keep a watchful eye on them.

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