Washington state's diverse waterways of rivers, lakes, bays, inlets and coastal areas require different skills, preparation and safety equipment.
You're required by law to carry specific safety equipment. Requirements vary according to size and type of boat or paddlecraft. The legal requirements are minimal and do not maximize your chances of being rescued in a timely manner when an accident happens. You'll need additional equipment to be rescue ready, increase survival time and keep everyone safe.
Plan accordingly, be prepared and enjoy a lifetime of boating and paddling adventures!
The following actions are known to be the top reasons for fatalities and accidents on the water.
- Failure to wear life jackets, especially in small boats
- Boating under the influence of alcohol and drugs
- Failure to follow navigation rules
- Operator inexperience, inattention, unsafe speeds and improper lookout
- No ability to call for rescue when an accident happens
Many recreational boaters in Washington are required to complete an approved boating safety education course and carry a Washington State Boater Education Card. All boaters are responsible for knowing the laws and keeping themselves and others safe. Even if carrying a card is not required, you should take a boating safety course to increase your knowledge of boating safety, emergency procedures and navigational rules. Passengers on a boat are encouraged to ask the captain about safety protocols, such as how to turn the boat off or make a Mayday call and where rescue equipment is located and how to use it.
Schedule a vessel safety check
The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the United States Power Squadrons have certified vessel examiners who will perform a free "vessel safety check". The purpose is to ensure a boat meets legal standards and has the necessary equipment for emergencies. These checks are conducted at a boat ramp, dockside or at other pre-determined locations. There is no charge and no consequences for not passing. Rather, you are provided with a written report on how to correct any discrepancies. Boats passing the safety check receive a decal (good for the current calendar year) indicating the boat is in full compliance with federal and state boating laws. Learn more and schedule a vessel safety check by visiting the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Always wear a life jacket
State law requires all vessels, including canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, to have at least one properly fitted Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person on board. And all children, age 12 and younger are required to wear one at all times. You are encouraged to wear your life jackets every time you go out on the water. Life jackets are now much more sophisticated and comfortable and tailored for specific water activities (PDF).
Bring communication devices
You should carry two forms of communication that will work when wet, such as a whistle, waterproof cell phone or VHF marine radio. These devices greatly increase your chances of being located in the event of an emergency. Day and night visible flares, a signal mirror and a whistle or air horn can also aid emergency responders in search efforts. A personal locator beacon (PLB) will instantly notify responders of your location when activated during a distress situation. It is recommended that you research the many options (PDF) and choose appropriately for the type of boating activity.
Avoid alcohol and marijuana
Designate a sober skipper! Boat owners/operators are responsible for the safety and well-being of everyone on board. Operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not only unsafe—it’s illegal. Washington state’s Boating Under the Influence (BUI) law applies to all boats including kayaks, canoes, rowboats and inflatable fishing rafts.
Understand weather, tides and currents
Certain conditions can make boating extremely hazardous and weather can change fast. It is a critical smart boating practice for you to check the correct weather forecast and understand what it means for your boating activity. You also need to be prepared if it changes. For example, high wind speeds usually mean choppy waves. The smaller the boat the higher the risk of capsizing. Checking weather apps on a smartphone doesn’t count! Unless it’s specifically a marine weather app.
Project against cold water immersion
Don’t be fooled by warm air temperatures because in Washington many waterways are below 60 degrees all year. Even lakes and rivers. Water under 60 degrees is dangerous if you fall in unexpectedly. It’s not hypothermia you need to worry about, there are four stages of cold water immersion. If you survive long enough to get hypothermia, you’ve done well; most drown at the first stage and in the first few minutes from cold water shock. Take caution and be prepared. Protect yourself by always wearing your life jacket and dress for water immersion. Especially if you’re in a boat under 21 feet, like a kayak, rowboat or small fishing boat, which has a higher risk of capsizing.
The State Parks Boating Program encourages you to have fun as you head out on the water and be smart. There’s a lot to learn and we’re here to help you! Explore the website, if you don’t find what you need feel free to contact us at 360-902-8555 or email boating staff.
Federal and Washington state law requires the following on every boat, no matter what size, including kayaks, canoes and stand up paddle boards.
- Life jackets - U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, of the right size and type, for everyone on board
- A sounding device - horn, whistle or bell
- A white navigation light -during low visibility such as fog, heavy rain, dawn or dusk
- Nighttime visual distress signal—such as flares (required on federal waterways only)
Depending on boat length and engine type, state law requires the following:
- Boat/Vessel registration on board
- Registration decals and numbers (PDF)—displayed correctly on each side of the boat
- Washington Boater Education Card—mandatory for boats with motors 15 (or more) horsepower
- Throwable flotation device
- Type B-1 fire extinguisher
- Visual distress signals—day and night time
- Navigation lights
- Carbon monoxide warning sticker on boats with motors
For a specific list of requirements by boat length and type, review the Washington State required equipment checklist (PDF).
Remember, these items are basic and won't maximize your chance of survival in an accident. There's additional gear necessary to be rescue ready.
PRO TIP: The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and U.S. Power Squadron (America's Boating Club) offer free vessel safety checks (VSC). There is no charge, and no consequences if you don't pass. Some will even meet you at your home. Schedule your VSC today! Local city and county marine law enforcement also provide a VSCs, contact them directly.
The legal requirements are minimal and do not maximize safety or chances of survival if an accident happens. Be prepared. We recommend the following equipment as essential to safety and survival.
- Carry two forms of communication (VHF radio, cellphone, flares or distress locator beacon). Keep them on you in
case you are separated from your vessel.
- Bailing system—a bucket, bailer or bilge pump
- Anchor & rope—appropriate to the size of your vessel and the waterway you're on.
- First aid kit
- Sun protection
- Navigation charts/GPS
- Tide book
- Rescue throw bag—to assist rescuing someone overboard.
- Lifting tackle—equipment to assist hoisting someone back into a boat.
- Strobe lights—a bright flashing light that floats so you don't lose sight of a person overboard.
- Extra clothes in a dry bag. Choose synthetic fabrics or wool. Avoid cotton clothes.
- Ditch bag—in an accident it may be impossible to collect many of these items, so keep them centralized and
accessible in case you need to abandon ship.
- Water and snacks—a safe vessel operator is alert at all times. Prevent dehydration and fatigue.
Remember—you need to know how to use your safety equipment! The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, U.S. Power Squadron, local clubs and outfitters offer boating safety classes. We encourage you to educate yourself and practice safety drills so you are prepared to survive if an accident happens. And they do happen.