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Regulations and Safety

Watch our Safety Video for more information about boating safely in Tennessee.

Tennessee is one of the nation's leading states offering recreational waterways, and most "Volunteer State" residents will at some time take advantage of this tremendous opportunity. 

Any Tennessee resident born after January 1, 1989 must show the TWRA-issued wallet Boating Safety Education Certificate as proof of successful completion of the TWRA Boating Safety exam.

 

Boating Equipment

"Coast Guard approved equipment" is equipment which has been approved by the Commandant of the U. S. Coast Guard and has been determined to be in compliance with U. S. Coast Guard specifications and regulations relating to the material, construction and performance of such equipment.

Floatation Devices

All children 12 years of age and younger are required to wear a Coast Guard approved PFD while on the open deck of a recreational boat except when anchored, moored, or aground. There are four basic things you should keep in mind about your personal flotation devices.

First, you must have one wearable device of the appropriate size on board for each person in the boat or each person being towed. (This applies to rowboats, sailboats, canoes and rafts as well as motorboats.)

Second, each device must be kept readily accessible. They should not be hidden below deck or stored in plastic bags. They should be worn or at least be close at hand where they can be reached quickly in an emergency.

Third, each device must be Coast Guard approved and bear the approval stamp and number.

Fourth, each device must be in good condition and be of the appropriate size for the person intended to wear it. The straps must be firmly affixed, there should be no rips, tears or holes which will affect the operating efficiency of the device, and there should be no leaks in the plastic bags containing the flotation material (this can be checked by squeezing each bag and listening for escaping air.)

State and Federal Flotation Device Regulations

All boats, including canoes and kayaks, must be equipped with one wearable personal flotation device for each person on board or for each person being towed on water skis, etc.

Boats 16 feet in length or over must also be equipped with one Type IV (throwable) PFD per boat in case someone falls overboard.

Inflatable Flotation Devices
There are a wide variety of inflatable life jackets available. To be accepted as one of the required life jackets on board, the device must have a Coast Guard approval stamp on it. If it is approved as a Type V, it must be worn to be accepted. Inflatable devices of any kind are not acceptable for persons less than 16 years old or for personal watercraft operation.

Ski Belts
These are not on the approved list of flotation devices and are not recommended for your safety. A ski belt may not be counted as one of the required pieces of equipment on board any boat. A ski belt may be worn while skiing but an approved flotation device for the skier must be on the towing boat.

Personal Flotation Devices (PFD) are classified by "Types" indicated below:

  • Type I: Has the greatest required buoyancy and is designed to turn most unconscious persons in the water from a face down position to a vertical or slightly backward position. The Type I PFD provides the greatest protection to its wearer and is most effective for all waters.
  • Type II: A wearable device designed to turn its wearer in a vertical or slightly backward position in the water. The turning action is not as pronounced as with a Type I, and the device will not turn as many persons under the same conditions as the Type I.
  • Type III: A wearable device designed so the wearers can place themselves in a vertical or slightly backward position. While the Type III has the same buoyancy as the Type II PFD, it has a little or no turning ability. A Type III comes in a variety of styles, colors and sizes. Many are designed to be particularly useful when water skiing, sailing, hunting, fishing or engaging in other water sports. Several of this type will also provide increased hypothermia protection.
  • Type IV: A device designed to be thrown to a person in the water and grasped and held by the user until rescued. It is not designed to be worn. The most common Type IV devices are a buoyant cushion and a ring buoy.
  • Type V: Any PFD approved for restricted use. Approved flotation devices which are partially or totally inflatable must be worn to be accepted as a legal device.

Acceptable flotation devices must meet the following conditions:

  • They must bear the Coast Guard approved label
  • They must be in good and serviceable condition
  • They must be an appropriate size for the person who intends to wear it
  • Wearable PFDs must be readily accessible
  • Throwable devices must be immediately available for use.

If someone falls overboard, follow these procedures:

  • Toss a life-saving device even if the person can swim. A life ring is the preferred device. It can be thrown farther and is easier to hang on to. However, use whatever device is nearest. Time is essential.
  • Slow the boat, keeping the person in view. Other persons onboard should act as look outs. At night, direct the best possible lights on the victim.
  • Try to approach the person from downwind or into the waves. Always use common sense and good judgment. Consider existing condition and ability of the victim and what other help is available. If someone aboard is capable, have the person put on a life-saving device with a line attached to the boat and enter the water to assist the person.
  • Always stop the motor when someone is going over the side, or coming aboard.
  • Assist the person in boarding the boat. It is difficult to climb into a boat from the water. The person may be hurt or cold and may require help.

Fire Extinguishers must be carried on all motorboats which have any of the following conditions:

Boats are 26 feet or longer, transport passengers for hire, have one or more of the following:

  • Inboard engines
  • Closed compartments under thwarts and seats where portable fuel tanks may be stored
  • Double bottoms not sealed to the hull or which are not completely filled with flotation material
  • Closed living spaces
  • Closed storage compartments where combustible or flammable material is placed

Permanently installed fuel tanks. These are defined as:

Tanks which require the removal of screws or bolts to remove them from the boat.
Tanks that when filled cannot be easily or readily handled by one person on board.
Each fire extinguisher is classified by letter and Roman numeral according to the type of fire it will extinguish, and the size of the extinguisher.

The "letter" indicates the Type of fire:

  • A - Fires of ordinary combustible materials
  • B - Gasoline, oil and grease fires
  • C - Electrical fires

Extinguishers approved for motorboats are hand portable, of either B-I or B-II classification for gasoline, oil and grease fires.

Coast Guard Classes B-I B-II
U.L. Listing 5B 6B
Foam (gallons) 1-1/4 2-1/2
Carbon Dioxide (lbs) 4 15
Dry Chemicals (lbs) 2 10
Halon (lbs) 2-1/2  

Dry chemical fire extinguishers without gauges or indicating devices must be weighed and tagged every six months.

Check extinguishers regularly to be sure that gauges are free and showing fully charged and nozzle is clear.

Number of Fire Extinguishers Needed:

  • Vessels under 26 feet in length: If the boat meets any of the conditions which require an extinguisher, then a minimum of one B-I extinguisher must be on board.
  • Vessels 26 feet to under 40 feet in length: one B-II or two B-I extinguishers are required.
  • Vessels 40 feet to under 65 feet in length: Three B-I or one B-II and one B-I extinguisher are required.

A permanently installed fire extinguisher in an engine compartment may be substituted for one B-I extinguisher on any class of vessel.

Read labels on fire extinguishers; the extinguisher must say U. S. Coast Guard approved or U. L. listed for marine use.

Vessels with closed gasoline engine compartments must be ventilated. Boats built after July 31, 1980, must be ventilated by a powered exhaust blower system. Boats built before that date must have at least one intake and one exhaust duct fitted with cowls for the removal of explosive fumes. The intake duct should be vented from outside the boat to midway of the compartment or to a level below the carburetor air intake. The exhaust duct should be vented from the lower portion of the engine compartment to the outside of the boat.

Vessels with enclosed fuel tank compartments must be ventilated like the description above. An exception is made if the boat meets the following requirements:

  • Built after July 31, 1978.
  • Electrical components within the compartment are ignition proofed.
  • The tank is vented to the outside of the boat.

Sound Signaling Devices

Vessels less than 39 feet 4 inches (12 meters) are not specifically required to carry a whistle, horn or bell but they must have some means of making an "efficient sound signal."Vessels over 39 feet 4 inches (12 meters) are required to carry a bell and a powered whistle or horn.

Visual Signaling 

Visual distress signals are not required for boaters using Tennessee waters. They are desirable to have on any boat but are only required for boats using coastal waters and the Great Lakes. Boaters using those waters should obtain the exact requirements based on the length of their boat and whether they will be operating at night.

Marine sanitation device laws apply to boats with installed heads (commodes). Sanitation devices are classified by types. Types I & II treat sewage and then discharge it into the water. A Type III is a holding tank which retains the waste until it is pumped out at a marina or other facility. The following is a summary of the M.S.D. laws:

  • Discharging untreated sewage into public water is prohibited. It is illegal to use a vessel which is capable of discharging untreated sewage.
  • Public waters are classified as either discharge (capable of accepting treated sewage) or no discharge (waste must be retained in a holding tank until properly removed).
  • Discharge into public waters is restricted to a Type I or II U.S. Coast Guard approved marine sanitation device on those waters classified as discharge.
  • Marinas and docks operating on public water must provide a sewage removal service.
Discharge Reservoirs No Discharge Reservoirs  
Barkley Beech River Lakes  
Caulderwood Boone  
Cheatham Center Hill  
Chickamauga Cherokee  
Cordell Hull Chilhowee  
Cumberland River Dale Hollow  
Ft. Loudon Douglas  
Kentucky Ft. Patrick Henry  
McKellar Great Falls  
Melton Hill J. Percy Priest  
Mississippi River Lake Graham  
Nickajack Nolichucky  
Old Hickory Normandy  
Pickwick Norris  
Reelfoot Ocoee 1,2,3  
South Holston Tims Ford  
Tellico Watauga  
Tennessee River Wilbur  
Watts Barr Woods  

Federal law requires that all vessels 26 feet and over must display one or more pollution placards (signs) in a prominent location so that it can be read by the crew and passengers.

The placard must:

  • Be at least 9" wide x 4" high.
  • State that discharge of plastic or garbage mixed with plastic into any waters is prohibited.
  • State that discharge of all garbage is prohibited in the navigable waters of the United States and, in all other waters, within three nautical miles of the nearest land.

Boating Regulations

Owner's Responsibility

It is the responsibility of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to enforce and administer the provisions of the "Tennessee Boating Safety Act." Enforcement officers of the Agency are on the water to assist boaters as well as to enforce laws and to provide control when necessary.

The owner of a vessel may be responsible for any injury or damage done by his or her vessel whether the owner is present or not.  This shall not hold true if the vessel is used without the owner's consent. 

Law Enforcement

Every officer of the Agency has the authority to stop and board any vessel subject to the State Boating Act. They may issue citations or, when necessary, they may arrest, on sight, without warrant, any person they see violating any provisions of the Act.

Most Agency vessels may be recognized by the orange and green stripes near the bow and the words WILDLIFE RESOURCES on the sides; however, unmarked vessels are also used. Boaters who are signaled to stop must do so immediately and maneuver in such a way that the officer may come along side or come aboard.

TWRA officers monitor marine radio channel 17 and can also be contacted through the regional TWRA dispatcher at the toll-free number.

 

Before Leaving

  • Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
  • Check weather forecasts.
  • Ventilate bilges before starting engine.
  • Be sure your boat is basically equipped.
TWRA Boating Regulations

 Life Jackets Required Below Dams!

A U. S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device must be worn by each person on board vessels being operated within specifically marked areas below any dam.

Young Operators

  • Any Tennessee resident born after January 1, 1989 must have in their possession a TWRA-issued card showing proof of successful completion of the TWRA administered boating safety exam if operating alone.
  • Persons under 12 years old may not operate a powered boat of more than 8.5 horsepower unless accompanied by an adult who can take immediate control of the vessel.
  • If the accompanying adult (18 yrs. or older) is born after January 1, 1989, then he/she must have the boating safety certification card onboard.

Boating under the influence

It is unlawful to operate any sail or powered vessel while under the influence of intoxicants or drugs. Here are some important facts to consider.

Implied Consent

All persons operating a sail or powered vessel have given their implied consent to chemical tests to determine the alcohol or drug content of their blood. Failure to consent to testing is a separate offense and may result in suspension of vessel operating privileges for six months.

Presumption of Guilt

A vessel operator whose BAC tests show .08% or greater by weight, of alcohol shall constitute a violation of this statute and is presumed under the influence and his or her ability to operate a vessel is impaired.

Blood-Alcohol Test Required

Blood-alcohol content may be taken from all operators involved in an accident where death or serious injury occurred.

Penalties

Conviction for operating under the influence will result in fines of up to $2,500 on the first offense, $2,500 on the second offense and $5,000 for the third offense. A jail sentence of 11 months and 29 days may also be imposed for any conviction and operating privileges may be suspended from one to ten years. Additional federal penalties may also be charged.

No Wake (Idle Speed) Areas

Unless otherwise marked, all vessels operating within 300 feet of a commercial boat dock must do so at a slow wake speed regardless of whether or not the area is marked by buoys.

"No wake" is defined as a vessel traveling at or below idle speed, or at such speed that the boat or its wake (waves) is not sufficient to cause possible injury or damage to other persons, boats, or property.

Driving Safety

Boats must not operate within 50 feet of a diver's- down flag and a slow, no-wake idle speed restriction is automatically imposed within 200 feet of the flag.

A diver is any person who is in the water and equipped with a face mask, snorkel or underwater breathing apparatus.

All divers, regardless of whether they are diving from a boat, shall prominently display a diver's-down flag in the area in which they are diving and must surface within 50 feet of the flag. After dusk the flag must be illuminated so it can be seen from a minimum of 300 feet.

Any boat used as a necessary part of the diving operation must display, from its mast a diver's-down flag at least 20 inches x 24 inches in size and an international code flag Alpha so that they are visible from 360 degrees. After dark such boats shall illuminate their flags so they are visible from a minimum of 300 feet.

Reckless operation of a vessel, water skies or similar device is one of the most serious offenses in Tennessee boating law. Violations are punishable by a fine of $2500 and six months in jail. Additionally, the Coast Guard may impose a civil penalty of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of one year. Reckless operation is defined as any act which endangers life, limb or property.

Examples of reckless operation are:

Operating a vessel in swimming areas.
Riding on seatbacks, gunwales, transoms or pedestal seats while above an idle speed.
Excessive speed in crowded areas, dangerous areas or during restricted visibility.
Operating an overloaded vessel.
Towing a skier in a crowded area where a fallen skier is likely to be hit by other vessels or towing in areas where the skier is likely to strike an obstacle.
Using a personal watercraft to jump the immediate wake of another vessel. 

Vessel operators involved in an accident must notify TWRA immediately.

Any boating accident involving death, or injury requiring medical treatment beyond first aid, or the disappearance of a person should be reported as soon as possible, and must be reported within 48 hours. 

All accidents involving property damage in excess of $2000 (to one vessel or a combination of both vessels) must be reported within 10 days.

The operator of every vessel involved in a reportable boating accident is required to file an accident form with the TWRA. Failure to report a boating accident is a criminal offense and may result in prosecution by the TWRA. 

Giving assistance is required. Whenever a boat is involved in an accident, it is the duty of the operator to give necessary assistance, as long as it will not personally endanger the operator, the passengers, or vessel. 

Incidents Involving Serious Injury or Death: Vessel operators involved in incidents where persons are seriously injured or killed may be charged with a felony resulting in a fine of $10,000 and 15 years imprisonment.

Personal watercraft are those vessels (boats) which are designed to be operated by a person sitting, standing, or kneeling on the craft rather than sitting or standing inside the vessel.

It includes but is not limited to jet skis, wet bikes, wave runners, sea doos and similar craft.  Personal watercraft are considered powered vessels and must adhere to the same rules as any other boat.  They must be registered, carry flotation devices and be operated at a speed safe enough for the operator to avoid a collision or stop in time to avoid an accident.

Additionally, personal watercraft operators should be aware of the following:

  • Jumping the immediate wake (within 100 feet) of another vessel, weaving through congested vessel traffic and riding close to ramps, docks, or the shore is considered reckless operation.
  • All persons operating or using personal watercraft must wear a personal flotation device (life jacket), Type I, II, or III (Inflatable cannot be used).
  • No person shall operate a personal watercraft between sunset and sunrise.
  • Persons under 12 years of age may not operate a personal watercraft unless an adult is on board who can take immediate control of the boat.
  • Persons who allow an under-aged operator to use a personal watercraft may be prosecuted in addition to, or in lieu of, the operator.
  • Personal watercraft being used to tow skiers, surfboards or other devices must be equipped with 2 mirrors (at least 2 1/2 by 4 inches) or have a person, 12 years or older, to observe the progress of the skier.
  • The mirrors must be mounted on each side of the personal watercraft (not on the handle bars).
  • Sailboards (windsurfers) are not considered vessels and do not have to be registered. A personal flotation device is recommended but not required for sailboards.

Before a person may carry passengers for hire on the navigable waters of the United States, an appropriate license must be obtained from the U. S. Coast Guard.

This includes ferry service, fishing guide service or any operation where consideration (monetary or otherwise) is required from the passengers.

Only Type I PFDs are acceptable when carrying passengers for hire. Some equipment requirements vary with the classification of the vessel and the number of passengers carried.

For questions about licensing and equipment requirements, contact the nearest U. S. Coast Guard Marine Safety office.

Boat races, marine parades and any other special aquatic events which may restrict local navigation or require additional patrol by wildlife officers, may not be held without first obtaining a permit from the Executive Director of the TWRA.

The free permit may be requested by applying to the TWRA at least 30 days prior to the date of the event.

Engines of all motorized vessels must have an effective muffling system.

The noise level of any motorized vessel may not exceed 86 decibels at 50 feet or more.

Manufacturers may not sell vessels which do not meet the noise level requirements.

Any vessel used to tow a person on water skis, surfboard or similar device must follow these regulations:

  • Skiing is prohibited from sunset to sunrise and during inclement weather. 
  • Vessels towing skiers must be equipped with a 170 degree, wide-angle rearview mirror or have on board a person 12 years or older, other than the operator to observe the progress of the skier. 
  • Skiers must wear an adequate and effective life preserver, buoyant vest or life belt. If the device worn is not Coast Guard approved, then an approved device for the skier must be on board the towing vessel. 
  • Citations to court may be issued to the vessel operator and/or the skier if the vessel or the ski are manipulated in a manner which endangers life limb or property. 
  • Do not ski near, or in front of, tow boats or other large craft since their visibility is restricted and their ability to stop quickly or maneuver is extremely limited. 
  • Driver and passengers must not sit on deck, gunwales or transom while the boat is in motion.

• Picnicking is permitted.
• Disorderly conduct or use of intoxicants or other behavior-modifying substances are prohibited.
• The use of firearms is prohibited except during regular hunting season.
• Target shooting is prohibited at all times.
• Swimming from or near ramps or in such a manner as to interfere with the launching or removal of boats is prohibited.

 

Clean Vessel Act Program

In 1992, Congress passed the Clean Vessel Act to help reduce pollution from vessel sewage discharges into U.S. waters. The Grant Program established by the Act is for the funding of the construction, renovation, operation, and maintenance of pumpout stations, dump stations, and pumpout vessels to service pleasure craft. As part of its commitment to provide clean, safe, and enjoyable recreational boating in Tennessee, TWRA serves as the State Grant coordinator. The Department will also provide boater education programs to promote public awareness about boat sewage and its proper disposal.

The Clean Vessel Act grant funds are available to both the public and private sector. This includes all local governmental entities and private businesses that own and operate boating facilities that are open to the general public.

More Information regarding the Tennessee Clean Vessel Act Program or Marine Sanitation Laws within Tennessee, please call (866) 416-4488 or e-mail cvaoftennessee@yahoo.com.

 

Tips for Fueling up

  • Stop smoking and extinguish all fires.
  • Close all vents, doors, hatches.
  • Ground the nozzle to tank opening.
  • Portable tanks should be filled outside of boat.
  • Ventilate engine compartment before starting.
Clean Vessel Act Program

What The Grant Covers

The Grant will reimburse recipients for up to 75% of the installed cost of pumpout and dump stations. This includes the cost of new equipment, or the renovation of existing equipment, as well as necessary pumps, piping, lift stations, on-site holding tanks, pier or dock modifications, signs, permits and other miscellaneous equipment needed for a complete and efficient station. The Grant will not pay for the construction or renovation of onshore restroom facilities, or sewage treatment plants, including septic tanks, leach fields, private and municipal treatment plants.

What The Cost Will Be For You

As a grant recipient, you are responsible for at least 25% of the installed costs of the pumpout and dump station facilities provided for under the grant program. This 25% match can be cash, the fair market value of any labor or materials provided, or a combination thereof.

Can You Be Reimbursed For A Pumpout You've Already Installed?

No. Costs incurred prior to the effective date of a grant agreement are not allowable.

Your Responsibilities Under The Grant Program

  • All recreational vessels must have access to the pumpout and dump stations funded under this grant program. The grant recipient shall guarantee that the facilities will be operated, maintained, and be accessible to all recreation vessels for the full period of their useful life.
  • A sign depicting the national pumpout symbol shall be installed so as to be clearly visible to boaters.
  • An informational sign shall be installed at pumpout and dump stations. The sign information should specify fees, restrictions, hours of operation, operating instructions, and a contact name and telephone number to call if the facility is inoperable. The sign shall also acknowledge that the facility was constructed or improved with funds from the Sport Fish Restoration Program, through the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Can You Charge For Use Of The Pumpout Or Dump Station?

Yes. While the State encourages the free use of facilities constructed under this program, a maximum user fee of $5 can be charged. However, during the grant application evaluation process, a higher priority will be given to applicants who propose free use or a lower than maximum user fee.

 

 

LLook for this symbol at marinas that have a pumpout or dump station.

Pumpout Symbol

Boat Lighting

All boats operating between sunset and sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility are required to display the appropriate lights.   Boats are considered underway and must show all the appropriate lights unless they are anchored, moored or aground.   Anchored vessels must show the appropriate anchor lights.

LED Lighting on Boats (pdf)

  • Power Driven Vessels Boats built before December 25, 1981, and less than 20 meters (65 ft. 6 in.) shall exhibit navigation lights as displayed in either figure 1, 2 or 3.
  • Boats built after December 25, 1981, and less than 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.)in length may use figure 1, 2 or 3.
  • Boats built after December 25, 1981, 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.) or more in length but less than 20 meters (65 ft. 6 in.) must use figure 1 or 2. 
  • If the lighting display in figure 1 is used, the aft masthead light must be higher than the forward one; if figure 2 is selected, a vessel less than 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.) must have the masthead light 1 meter (3 ft. 3 in.) higher than the colored lights.
  • If the vessel is using figure 2 and is 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.) or more in length but less than 20 meters (65 ft. 6 in.) then the masthead light must be 2.5 meters (8 ft. 2 in.) higher than the gunwale.
  • Sailing Vessels & Vessels Under sail alone, shall exhibit the lights shown on figure 4, 5 or 6.
  • A vessel under oars or a sailing vessel of less than 7 meters (22 ft. 10 in.) shall, if practicable, exhibit the lights prescribed in figure 4, 5 or 6.
  • However, if she does not, she must have ready at hand an electric light or lighted lantern showing a white light as seen in figure 7 which must be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collisions.
  • During daylight operation, vessels 12 meters (39 ft. 4 in.) and over using sail and machinery must display the shape of a black cone pointing down.
Boat Lighting

Lights Required While Anchored

An anchor light is an all-round white light, visible for 2 miles, which is exhibited in the forepart of the vessel or where it can best be seen.

Power driven and sailing vessels less than 7 meters (23 feet) must display an anchor light when anchored in or near a narrow channel, fairway or anchorage where other vessels normally navigate. 

Power driven and sailing vessels 7-20 meters (23 to 65.6 feet) are required to show an anchor light except when in a special anchorage area designated by the Secretary of Transportation or other authority. 

A sailing vessel under machinery power and sails is considered a power-driven vessel.