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Coast Guard Requirements for Personal Boats & Paddles

    • Boating is a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors, whether you're kayaking in a small river or sailing on the open sea. No matter what kind of boating you prefer, however, being away from dry land can lead to unexpected danger. For this reason, the U.S. Coast Guard has a number of requirements to ensure that you stay safe on the water. Familiarize yourself with these requirements before you set out on your next boating adventure.

    Life Jackets

    • The Coast Guard stresses that you should wear a life jacket each and every time you set out on the water. Although it is not illegal to be on the water without wearing one, you must have your boat stocked with a Coast Guard-approved type of jacket for each person on board. If your boat is longer than 16 feet, you are also required to have at least one throwable flotation device in addition to the life jackets. Life jackets must be readily accessible to each person on board, not in a locked storage compartment or stored underneath anything else. Test each life jacket for buoyancy at least once a year.


    • Specific Coast Guard lighting requirements depend upon on the size and type of boat you own. All boats are required to display navigation lights from sunset until sunrise. For boats under 40 feet in length, these lights consist of red and green sidelights, which must be visible from at least one mile away, and a white stern light, which must be visible from two miles. Powerboats must display a masthead light visible at two miles; sailboats may opt for a tricolor masthead light. Boats measuring 40 to 65 feet are required to display the same types of lights as smaller boats, but they must be visible from farther away. The sidelights on a larger vessel must be visible from two miles, and the masthead light must be visible from three miles.

    Distress Devices

    • The Coast Guard approves two basic kinds of visual distress devices: pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic. The non-pyrotechnic device is simply an orange flag for use during the daytime. The approved pyrotechnic devices include red and orange aerial flares for night or day use, as well as an orange smoke-emitting device for the daytime. The Coast Guard's minimum requirements for pyrotechnic devices call for three devices that can be used during the day or at night. Each type of pyrotechnic device comes marked with an expiration date, so you will need to replace them periodically. The Coast Guard has slightly different requirements for paddle craft, which must be equipped with a sound-making device of some kind.

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