Cruising Guide NC
North Carolina Boating Regulations

This section contains information on North Carolina Boating Regulations that are in addition to the Federal Requirements covered in the Basic Boating Safety Course. If you have not reviewed the course material, please do so now. All Federal Requirements in the basic boating course apply to North Carolina; this section lists North Carolina Boating Requirements that are above and beyond Federal Requirements. 

The following information is copied from, under Regulations. It is provided by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Directly reference these sites for the most current rules.

Personal Flotation Devices:

All recreational vessels must have one Type I, II or III PFD of a suitable size for each person aboard and each skier being towed. In addition, recreational vessels 16 feet and over must also have one throwable Type IV PFD.

Required PFDs must be readily accessible.

Speed Limits and Reckless Operation:

Although local conditions may warrant the imposition of definite limitations on speed of vessels, a general speed limit is that which is implied in safe vessel operation under existing circumstances. Speed which is excessive under the circumstances, and which endangers persons or property, is one form of reckless operation which is prohibited by North Carolina boating law.

Watercraft entering, leaving or passing within 50 yards of a state-owned or controlled boating and fishing access area must do so at "no-wake" speed.

No person shall operate any motorboat or vessel, or manipulate any water skis, surfboard, or similar device in a reckless or negligent manner so as to endanger life, limb or property of any person.

Navigation Rules:

The State of North Carolina adopts and enforces all Federally mandated boating safety laws.

Every vessel operating in the State of North Carolina shall carry and use safety equipment in accordance with U. S. Coast Guard requirements as specified in the Code of Federal Regulations. Additionally, every vessel shall display the lights and shapes required by the navigation rules. 

Diving and Snorkeling:

All divers, in waters open to boating, shall display a divers flag (red with white diagonal stripe) in the area in which the diving occurs. They may not display the flag when not engaged in diving or at any location where it will unreasonably obstruct navigation.

Boaters should stay at least 50 feet away from a diver-down flag.

Water Skiing:

No person shall tow a person on water skis, surfboards or similar device:

  • In a reckless and dangerous manner
  • While under the influence of an impairing substance
  • Where the direction or location of the device may be manipulated or controlled from the boat so as to cause the person being towed to collide with any object or person

Water Skiing is prohibited between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise.

The vessel towing the skier shall be equipped with a rear vision mirror or carry an observer (not the boat operator), or the person being towed is wearing a PFD.

Colonial Waterbird Nesting Areas:

Coastal islands and beach areas posted as Colonial Waterbird Nesting Areas are being managed to protect nesting populations of pelicans, terns, gulls, herons and egrets. Special regulations apply. Access is prohibited on these areas from April 1 to August 31, except by special permit. Dogs may not be allowed on these areas during this time period. Access on these areas from September 1 to March 30 will be allowed as authorized by the land owner.

Accident Reporting:

Any accident involving death, disappearance or personal injury beyond first aid, or damage greater than $500 must be reported. Death, disappearance and injury cases must be reported within 48 hours. Other accidents must be reported within 10 days. Accidents should be reported to the Wildlife Resources Commission on a form provided by them.

Boating While Intoxicated:

No person shall operate any motorboat or vessel, or manipulate any water skis, surfboard or similar device while under the influence of an impairing substance, nor operate any motor vessel after consuming alcohol sufficient to cause a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or greater.


All vessels operated on the waters of North Carolina must be numbered except:

  • Vessels documented by the United States Bureau of Customs or any federal agency successor thereto
  • Foreign vessels using North Carolina waters temporarily
  • Vessels owned by the United States Government or by a state, county or municipality
  • Vessels used exclusively as life boats
  • Sailboats not over 14 ft. in length at the load waterline
  • Vessels with no means of propulsion other than drifting or manual paddling, poling or rowing
  • Vessels with a current number from another state or country temporarily using North Carolina waters. (Less than 90 consecutive days.)

The Certificate of Vessel Number must be onboard when the vessel is in use.

The vessel's number must be painted or permanently affixed on the forward half of each side of the vessel



North Carolina and federal boating laws are presented in a summarized form. The laws in their entirety can be found by consulting North Carolina State Law. These laws are subject to change. It is the responsibility of the operator to be aware of the most current laws when using a boat.

Certain bodies of water in North Carolina have local restrictions as to type and size of watercraft or motor horsepower, restricted use areas, boat speed, and times for use. Check with the local authorities for these additional restrictions.



The Marine Trades Services is a program of the Small Business Technology Development Center (SBTDC). The SBTDC is a business development service of The University of North Carolina operated in partnership with the US Small Business Administration.