Coast Guard Safety Requirements for Boats 16–26 Feet

High Speed Coast Guard Patrol Boat, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
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To ensure the safety of recreational boaters, the U.S. Coast Guard has certain safety requirements for recreational boats up to 65 feet. While most of the safety laws are essentially the same for each size category of boats, some differ.

If your boat is 16–26 feet, you have additional responsibilities compared with the owner of a smaller boat. Knowing the U.S. Coast Guard Safety Regulations will ensure you are in compliance and will help secure your safety and that of your passengers.

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State Registration

All recreational boats must be registered in the state where they are most used. When you register your boat, the state will issue you a "certificate of number." You must have the certificate on board while the boat is in use, and the number must be displayed on the outside of the boat. You also have the option to register your boat with the Coast Guard.

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State Numbering and Letters

It's not enough to have your certificate of number on board. You must attach the number on each side of the forward half of the boat so that it is visible. The number must be in contrasting color to the boat and at least 3 inches in height. Your state's validation sticker or stickers must be attached within 6 inches of the registration number. Nothing else may be displayed nearby.

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Certificate of Documentation

For documented vessels only, an original and current certificate must be on board. The vessel name must be on the exterior part of the hull and must be at least 4 inches in height. The official number, at least 3 inches in height, should be permanently affixed on the interior structure.

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Personal Flotation Device

One type of Coast Guard-approved life jacket or life vest must be on board for each person on the boat. You must also have one Type V personal flotation device, like a ring or cushion, that you can throw to someone in the water.

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Visual Distress Signal

The Coast Guard requires that boats 16–26 feet have at least one of the following combination of distress signal devices:

  • One orange distress flag and one electric distress light
  • Three hand-held or floating orange smoke signals and one electric distress light
  • Three combinations (day/night) red flares that can be hand-held, meteor, or parachute type
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Fire extinguisher

If your boat has an inboard engine, enclosed compartments where fuel or flammable and combustible materials are stored, closed living spaces, or permanently installed fuel tanks, you are required to have one marine-type USCG B-I fire extinguisher.

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If your boat was built after April 25, 1940, and uses gasoline in an enclosed engine or fuel tank compartment, it must have natural ventilation. If it was built after July 31, 1980, it must have an exhaust blower.

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Sound-Producing Device

You need a sufficient way to make a sound signal, like a whistle or an air horn, but not a human-produced noise. The sound signals are used when meeting, crossing, or overtaking other vessels, or if visibility is reduced.

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Navigation Lights

You must have your navigation lights on between sunset and sunrise and during times of reduced visibility. The U.S. Coast Guard Safety Regulations booklet describes acceptable navigation lightning for different types of recreational boats.

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Backfire Flame Arrestor

Gasoline engine boats manufactured after April 25, 1940, are required to have a means of backfire flame control. The exception is those with outboard motors.

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Marine Sanitation Device

If your boat has an installed toilet, it must have a Coast Guard-certified operable marine sanitation device. The device can be a Type I or II flow-through or Type III holding tank.

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