Texas water safety laws you need to know before operating a watercraft

May 18, 2020

Whether you're floating or boating, learning about Texas water safety laws is a must

Children practicing Texas water safety laws by wearing personal floatation devices or life jackets.

If your summer plans include sailing, kayaking, canoeing, wakeboarding, or skiing, it’s time to brush up on your water safety knowledge. Texas water safety laws for operating a vehicle on the water are different than those for operating a vehicle on land, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. Read up on the most recent water safety laws so you don’t end up neck-deep in boating fines!

Common questions about Texas water safety

Boater education

Do I have to take a boater education course? Mandatory boater education is required for anyone born on or after Sept. 1, 1993, to operate a Personal Watercraft (PWC), sailboat more than 14 feet long, or motorboat with a motor greater than 15 horsepower. After passing this course, the operator will receive his/her boater’s card/license.

Can I teach my child how to drive a boat? While you can certainly teach your child the fundamentals of driving a boat, they are required to take an approved boater education class. However, there are approved online classes your child can take at home.

It's important to remember that a person younger than 13 can only operate a watercraft if he/she is with an adult who is at least 18 years of age and who can lawfully operate the watercraft.

Safety on the water

Does everyone have to wear a life jacket at all times? Even though they are recommended for everyone, only children younger than age 13 must wear a life jacket at all times while on a vessel under 26 feet.

For personal watercraft, such as a jetski, all occupants must have a Personal Floatation Device (PFD). All vessels under 16 feet, including canoes and kayaks, must carry with it at least one Type I, II, III, or V for each occupant.

How many life jackets do I need? It depends on how many occupants you have on board. By law it is mandatory that the watercraft operator has a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) that fits every adult and child on board the watercraft.

What qualifies as a suitable PFD? There are a number of different types of PFDs and life jackets, and they all have various features. Before selecting one, make sure you understand what they do, which is outlined on the United States Coast Guard (USCG) label that should be on every approved PFD.

Do I need one of those throwable life preservers? Only if your watercraft is 16 feet or longer (unless you’re in a canoe or kayak). A throwable life preserver is considered a type IV PFD.

How far away do I need to be from other watercrafts/objects? All watercraft must keep a 50-foot distance from ship or shore unless the watercraft is operating at its idle speed.

What other water safety equipment do I need on board? If you’re driving a boat with a motor 9 nautical miles off the Texas coast, you’re in federal waters. If so, your watercrafts must carry a horn, fire extinguisher and flares if the watercraft is motorized.

Additionally, there are a number of different requirements as far as safety equipment when boating in Texas waters. There are different requirements for different classes of watercraft and are broken down between fire extinguishers, visual distress signals, sound producing devices (like a horn or whistle), and light. For a full, specific list, consult the chart from Texas Parks and Wildlife.

General questions

Do I need to carry identification on board? If you were born on or after September 1, 1993 and were required to take a boater education course, then you must carry proof of completion with you (i.e. your boating license).

Do I need a title and registration for my boat? Title and registration are required for personal watercraft and all boats, except for canoes, kayaks, manually propelled boats, or sailboats less than 16 feet.

How fast can I drive my watercraft? There are no speed limits while on water, but use common sense. Always operate at a speed that doesn’t endanger yourself and others, especially if participating in water sports.

Where is it safe to drive my watercraft? Buoys, markers and traffic signs are located on the water. It is important that you become familiar with these signs before operating your watercraft.

Can I drink and drive? Unlike driving a land vehicle, there is no "open container" law when it comes to boats. This means passengers are allowed to have alcoholic beverages on board. However, the operator of the boat is still subject to the same blood alcohol limit required for cars.

A person who has a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher while operating a boat can be arrested and charged with BWI (Boating While Intoxicated), be given a hefty fine and have his/her driver’s license suspended.

Finally, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, your chances of having a boating accident double when alcohol is involved. That's why it is so important to use sound judgement and put your safety, and the safety of your passengers, first.

What do I do if I see or get into a boating accident? You must contact the nearest law enforcement agency or the Texas Parks and Wildlife within 30 days of the accident. If the accident resulted in a death, bodily injury or major damage it must be reported within 48 hours.

Is boat insurance required in Texas?

Texas does not have any specific laws that require boat owners to have insurance. However, just because boat insurance it isn't required by law doesn't mean you don't need coverage.

By and large, the risks you face when out on the water are the same as the ones you face on the road. You can still damage your property, someone else's property, and potentially injure people as well. If you don't have insurance, you'll be required to cover repairs, medical bills, and any legal fees or court costs.

People on a boat following Texas water safety laws.

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For more information about our insurance products, request a free quote online, or reach out to one of our trusted agents today!

Read more: There's a lot to learn about boat insurance in Texas. Read all about it in our blog!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.