Who Has to Obey the Rules?
If you’re strictly a non-motorized kind of boater, you might be unaware that the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) makes and enforces rules that affect watercraft of all types. The USCG considers kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, kiteboards, bodyboards, and motorized tubes operated outside of very limited areas to be vessels. Therefore, the rules of safety and navigation apply.
The USCG defines a vessel as a watercraft or other manmade piece of equipment that is used (or is capable of being used) as a means of transportation on the water. To be a vessel, the watercraft must be capable of carrying persons or property beyond the limits of a swimming, surfing, or bathing area, and whether it can go further than the limits of the person operating it — say, for instance, could you fall asleep on or in it and the craft could keep traveling away from shore? The USCG also labels vessels as those watercraft that may present a substantial hazard to navigation or safety, and/or could hurt someone should it become disabled. (Along with the USCG definitions of vessels, states also have laws and requirements you’ll need to know and follow.)
Safety is always a personal responsibility — you shouldn’t need regulations to tell you to be aware, act defensively, and wear a life jacket. However, when it comes to fun in the sun on a SUP or kayak, knowing that you are operating a regulated vessel means you have obligations not just to yourself but to everyone else out on the water. You might be able to easily and swiftly maneuver yourself out of a tight spot on a SUP, but a sailboat has no brakes! Therefore, you must follow the rules of navigation. If you’re unsure as to what they are, take a basic boating safety course.
Consulting the weather report is a must, but knowing the water is just as important as the sky. As your vessel is portable, you can choose new locations all the time for adventures, but you must go in with your eyes wide open. Check currents and tides, and then ask questions of others who are familiar with the waterway’s layout and traffic patterns — are the channels narrow, do lots of boats drop anchor in a particular area, do boats go full out on a certain stretch before they hit the nearby no-wake zone, or does a ferry cross at regular intervals? Be prepared for any eventuality, but specifically plan for known circumstances so you can stay far right in a channel, avoid weaving in and out of boats tossing anchors, and take care to circumvent ferries.
Heading out in a group means others are looking out for your safety, and it also increases your visibility to larger vessels. If you’re going solo, however, let someone on shore know where you’ll be and roughly what time you expect to be back.
As a responsible vessel operator, you are required to wear a life jacket, carry a whistle, and have a flashlight (or headlamp) if you’re out after dark. Since you’re closer to the water and less protected than in a larger vessel, add in extra safeguards including wearing bright-colored clothing and a safety harness or leash to keep you and your vessel in proximity. Carry a signaling mirror and bring along your cellphone in a waterproof bag.
A note to boaters in bigger vessels: You must treat watercraft of all sizes with respect and heed the rules of navigation, too — especially in areas such as crossing, overtaking, and in doing everything in your power as skipper to avoid an accident, no matter who has the right of way.