Boating Basics

Know the Law

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

Check out the Adventures in Boating Washington Handbook to learn many of Washington state’s boating laws, including the following:

  • 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 and boating emergencies.

Registering your Vessel

Register your boat with the Washington State Department of Licensing. To navigate, operate, employ, or moor your vessel in 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 other exemptions.

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

Operator Age and Boating Education Requirements

Counties and cities may have further restrictions so remember to check in with them before heading out on the water. Find your local boating laws.

  • Anyone 12 years old and older may operate a motorboat of 15 horsepower and greater with a Washington Boater Education Card.
  • Without a card, the person must be supervised by someone at least 16 years old, who is carrying a Boater Education Card.
  • Anyone born before January 1, 1955 is exempt from needing to carry a Boater Education Card.
  • Personal Watercraft – You must be at least 14 years old to operate a personal watercraft. Remember, it is illegal to lease, hire, or rent a personal watercraft to anyone under 16 years old.

Washington State Boater Education Card

Be Whale Wise

Vessel traffic is one of a number of things impacting the survival of southern resident killer whales, which are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Boaters can do their part to protect southern resident killer whales and keep themselves safe by following Be Whale Wise regulations, which include:

  • Staying at least 300 yards from southern resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of the path behind or in front of the whales. (Note: Beginning January 1, 2025, boats must stay 1,000 yards from Southern Resident killer whales.)
  • Slowing down to seven knots within a half-mile of southern residents
  • Watching for and using the Whale Warning Flag, which helps notify boaters of whales nearby. Slow down if you see the flag. To get a flag of your own, visit the San Juan Marine Resources Committee’s Web site.
  • Turning off fish finders and/or depth sounders if you see southern residents in the distance. 
  • Helping promote safe waters for people and orcas. Report violations on the Be Whale Wise Web site.

For more information about Be Whale Wise regulations, visit

Navigating on Washington Waters

Safe navigation is the responsibility of all boaters. Even though no vessel will have absolute right-of-way over other boats, here are three basic rules that every operator should know and follow:

  • Practice good seamanship.
  • Maintain a safe speed and distance.
  • Keep a sharp lookout.

Remember, it’s illegal to obstruct navigation by doing any of the following:

  • Anchoring in the traveled part of a river or channel so that other vessels are interfered with or prevented from passing through.
  • Operating any vessel in a way that it will interfere with the safe navigation of other vessels.
  • Mooring or attaching to a buoy (other than a mooring buoy), beacon, light, or any other navigational aid placed by authorities on public waters.
  • Moving, displacing, tampering with, damaging, or destroying any navigational aid.

Prevent Pollution

Spilling oil or a hazardous substance into state waters is illegal. Polluters may be fined up to $10,000 for each violation or $100,000 for each day the oil poses a risk to the environment, or even more if the spill was intentional. Visit Clean, Green Boating at Washington Department of Ecology’s Web site to learn more.

Don’t Transport Nuisance Species

Washington State law prohibits transport of any water-based, non-native plants and creatures on any boat, trailer, fishing gear, or bait well. If found, law enforcement may stop you and require you to clean your vessel or gear.

To learn more about these aquatic invasive species, how to spot them, and what to do if you find them, visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Web site.

What You Can Do

  • Remove all visible aquatic plants and animals from your boat, motor, trailer, and other equipment before leaving the access area.
  • Always drain live wells and transom wells before leaving the water.
  • Report sightings online at the Washington Invasive Species Council Web site.