Boat owner legal requirements explained

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Boat owner legal requirements explained

Owning a boat is a dream for many people. The freedom of the open water, the tranquillity of life on canals, the wildlife, the detachment from the hustle and bustle of city life – it is so appealing.

When buying a boat there is so much more to arrange and consider than simply what vessel to purchase. There are several safety and legal requirements that you need to meet to legally take your boat out on the water.

What is classed as a boat?

The legal definition of a “boat” is:

  • any vessel with or without a motor, such as a sailing boat, riverboat, canal boat or houseboat
  • and any 'open boat' such as a paddleboard, rowing boat or dinghy

Depending on the where you want to use your boat, these are the legal requirements as a boat owner:

Legal requirements for inland waterways

If you want to use your boat on inland waterways such as canals and rivers it is necessary to obtain a cruising licence from the navigation authority that operates that waterway. There is a Gold Licence that covers all Environment Agency and Canal & River Trust Waterways. Some bodies of water, such as reservoirs, require their own special licence.

You must renew your licence yearly for the waterway you want to use your boat on.

To obtain a licence you will need to have:

  • A Boat Safety Scheme certificate

    These certify the safety level of your craft’s gas, fuel, safety equipment and electronic systems. Tests are conducted yearly by listed and trained examiners.
  • Boat insurance

Legal requirements for commercial use on inland waterways

If you want to use your new boat for commercial purposes you must apply for a boatmaster’s licence and if that business requires to carry more than 12 passengers you'll need a passenger-carrying certificate issued by the Coastguard and Maritime Agency.

Legal requirements for the sea

To use your boat at sea you will need to abide by the international safety regulations, which means you must:

  • carry a radar reflector
  • plan your journey
  • have an illustrated table of all recognised life-saving signals
  • use distress signals properly
  • always help other vessels, if needed

Being involved in an accident, or another incident, and not following these regulations could result in criminal prosecution.

There are also strict regulations about preventing collisions that mean that you must:

  • stay a safe distance from other vessels, and diving boats that display a blue and white ‘Alpha’ flag
  • be alert to other boats in the area at all times
  • be fitted with navigation lights, shapes and sound-signalling devices on your boat.

You can read more about this in The Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations 1996.

Additionally, if your boat is over 13.7 metres long, you must carry:

  • liferafts
  • lifejackets
  • flares
  • fire extinguishers

Different boats have different requirements depending on size and the distance they are intended to travel away from the coast. Pleasure vessels have another set of regulations.

As a boat owner, you are also required to stick to regulations that prevent you from polluting the sea, and there are also strict rules about getting rid of old flares. Failure to stick to any of these or any of the above regulations could result in prosecution.

Legal requirements for commercial use on the sea

To take a commercial vessel out on the sea you need to meet certain standards of operation and need to get the boat surveyed.

Before travelling check the legal requirements, including insurance and safety standards for the waterways of the nations you will pass through.

If you need help with financing your boat purchase it is worth speaking to experts in boat and marine finance to see what your options are.

More on buying a boat:

> How to buy a boat

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