What Are South Carolina’s Boating Laws?

As criminal defense attorneys and personal injury lawyers in Charleston, South Carolina, we have many clients who own and who operate recreation boats on our waterways. We’ve handled boating accident cases, charges of boating under the influence (BUI), and other cases involving boating in South Carolina. In other words, we’re very familiar with the boating laws in South Carolina. Likewise, it’s important for anyone operating a boat (referred to as “vessels” or “watercraft” in many of our laws) to understand what laws apply to them. This article is intended to give some of the highlights and to answer some of the most frequently asked questions regarding recreational boating activities, inshore boating, and boats less than 26 feet in length. Additionally, this article covers the basic boating rules in South Carolina, required boating equipment, DNR safety checks, boating insurance, registration and numbering of boats, boating accidents, criminal offenses, and more.

What Boating Equipment is Required in South Carolina?

Probably the most frequently asked question we get is what equipment you’re legally required to have on your boat. Here is the answer:

  • Current Title and Registration.
  • Personal Floatation Devices – (sometimes called “PFD’s” or life “jackets”). There needs to be a US Coast Guard-approved PFD for each person on board or in tow. Each PFD must be easily accessible, in good condition, and of the proper size for each passenger. Boats 16 feet long or longer must also carry a Type IV throwable device. If the boat is less than 16 feet long, then any person under 12 years old must wear a suitable PFD at all times (we recommend this for any boat under 26 feet, even though the law may not require it).
  • Fire Extinguisher – The boat must have a fire extinguisher that meets the US Coast Guard requirements.
  • Flares.
  • Bell, Whistle, Working Horn – The sound-producing device must be loud enough to be considered “efficient.”
  • “Kill Switch” – Every boat must have either a self-circling device or a lanyard-type engine cutoff switch.
  • Lighting – A boat must have the following lights:
    • Sidelights that are visible from 1 mile. The starboard (right) sidelight must be green, and the port (left) sidelight must be red.
    • A masthead light that is visible from 2 miles.
    • NOTE: A person may not use any rotating, strobing, flashing, or intermittently reflecting blue light. Any vessel at anchor must display anchor lights whether occupied or not between sunset and sunrise.

Complete descriptions of these lights can be found by clicking here.

What are the Boating Rules in South Carolina?

On the road, we all know you can’t speed, you must stop for stoplights and stop signs, and you can’t cross over solid lines. There are many other things we see every day because most people regularly either drive or ride in automobiles. So, what are the rules when you are boating? Outside of driving negligently, as described in another section below, make sure that the following laws are also on your list of things not to do to avoid getting a citation by law enforcement:

  • Don’t move in excess of idle speed if you are within 50 feet of a moored or an anchored vessel, a wharf, a dock, a bulkhead, a pier, or a person in the water.
  • Don’t move in excess of idle speed if you are within 100 yards of the Atlantic Ocean coastline.
  • Don’t go within 50 feet of another vessel if it displays a “diver down flag,” which is red with a diagonal white stripe. If the water is too narrow to not allow 50 feet, you can only pass at no-wake speed. Leave as much distance between you and the flag as safe and possible.
  • Don’t obstruct a pier, a dock, a boat ramp, or an access area to the facilities.
  • If you are letting someone else drive your boat, you can get any trouble for allowing them to break any of these laws.
  • You must heave to and allow boarding when signaled by DNR, the Coast Guard, the Sheriff’s Office, or any other law enforcement officer.
  • Always maintain proper look-out and always travel at a safe speed to allow time to avoid collisions.
  • Yield right of way to a vessel that you are passing, and if two vessels are crossing paths, the vessel that has the other vessel on its starboard (right) side must yield right of way. These are just a few of many rules dictated by the Coast Guard. For a more detailed list, consult with the Code of Federal Regulations, one relevant section of which may be found by clicking here.
  • The boat’s hull should be marked for capacity in both “weight” and “number of people.” Don’t exceed these limitations.
  • Don’t pass a boat stopped by law enforcement at more than a no-wake speed.

Violation of these laws can result in criminal penalties.

What are Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Safety Checks?

DNR, the Coast Guard, the Sheriff’s Office, or any other law enforcement agency on the water may stop you for what they call a “safety check,” where they stop you and make sure you have all of the required equipment listed above. When they conduct these safety checks, they often have no suspicion or “probable cause” to believe you are committing criminal activity. However, there is a statute that requires you to stop your vessel in a way as to permit boarding if a law enforcement vessel activates its blue lights. We’ve handled criminal cases where the only reason for the stop was the “safety check.” The constitutionality of this stop is questionable, but the South Carolina Supreme Court hasn’t yet decided whether this stop is legal. For now, if you are signaled to stop, you better stop or you can make the situation worse. If you have all of the required equipment, you aren’t intoxicated, and you’re not engaged in illegal activity, then most safety checks will go down without a hitch. The lawyers at Futeral & Nelson offer consultations to anyone who is charged with a crime on land or water.

What are Aids to Navigation and Regulatory Markers in South Carolina?

Boaters should be familiar with both the “aids to navigation” and the “regulatory markers.” An aid to navigation is a device designed to assist a boater to determine a safe course or to warn of dangers or obstructions. A regulatory marker is a device which alerts a boater to dangerous areas, but they also restrict or control boating operations. Regulatory markers include speed zone markers, information markers, danger zone markers, boat keep out areas, mooring buoys, and other dangerous areas. Ignoring an aid to navigation can result in you beaching your boat on a sandbar, possibly causing serious injury. Ignoring a regulatory marker can result in serious injury as well as criminal penalties. We urge you to follow all aids to navigation and regulatory markers. The agencies putting them in place put them there for your safety. An excellent guide to learning about the different markers and what they mean can be found by clicking here.

What are No Wake Zones in South Carolina?

DNR and the Coast Guard have designated various areas as “no-wake zones.” They are often found near boat landings and other high-traffic and loading areas. If you see a sign for a no-wake zone, slow down to idle speed or a speed that isn’t casting any wake! You can receive criminal penalties if you don’t. Many no-wake zones are not legitimate, however. A lot of people who live on the water and have docks put their own no wake signs out on the water. It isn’t criminal or illegal to ignore these signs, but always remember, no matter where you are, you are responsible for your wake! DNR and the Coast Guard put their logos on the legal “no wake” signs. If you do not see where DNR or the Coast Guard marked the no-wake zone sign, then it might be a sign placed by a private owner. Even if it is a private owner’s sign, consider all things pertaining to safety, such as whether you see people about to board a boat, before you simply fly through the area. Never ignore your wake.

Do You Need Boating Insurance in South Carolina?

Boating insurance is not required in South Carolina. However, as personal injury lawyers, we can’t stress enough the importance of obtaining insurance. It is very cheap in comparison to automobile insurance, so there is really no excuse to pass on boating insurance. If you are financing the boat, the bank might require that you have some form of insurance. If you do obtain a policy, consider the following items:

  • Liability Insurance – Covers you if you cause personal injury or property damage to someone else. The cost of $100,000 coverage isn’t much more than the cost of $25,000 in coverage. Get quotes on several different policy limits and choose the best coverage for your needs. You may just go for that large policy since it is normally so cheap.
  • Underinsured/Uninsured Coverage – Covers you if you are injured by someone else, and they either have no insurance or do not have enough insurance to compensate you. If you are obtaining a policy to pay for others’ injuries caused by you, why not make sure you are sufficiently covered as well? Many boat policies include underinsured and uninsured as one add-on to your policy.
  • Comprehensive/Collision – Covers you if damage to your boat is your fault.
  • Salvage – If you sink your boat, and you don’t get it out, the fines can be very heavy. Unfortunately, removing a sunken or stuck boat can be costly. Salvage insurance will cover this cost. It may be included in the comprehensive coverage, but make sure. Adding salvage can cost as little as $10 per year.
  • Towing – This type of coverage will pay for a towing company if your boat breaks down on the water.
  • Boat Contents – Consider adding coverage that will pay for damage to contents, fishing equipment, and other personal property.

All-in-all, call more than one insurance company and ask lots of questions. Make sure any quotes you receive and made both with and within the add-ons that you are unsure of. Ultimately, even if you never need the policy, the peace of mind might be worth it alone. And if you ever do need the policy, you will be glad you bought it. Additionally, there are also some private companies that offer their own form of towing insurance. Consider whether you want to pay the yearly fee to know you are covered if your engine ever fails and you can’t make it back. These towing companies can be very expensive if you have to hire them while you were not under contract with them. Finally, double-check your automobile policy to make sure it covers your trailer when you are driving on the road.

Do You Need to Register Your Boat in South Carolina?

Titles are required for nearly all boats with motors 5 horsepower (h.p.) or greater. Motorized watercraft must also be registered with the county. Registration numbers must be displayed on the hull and must be painted or permanently attached to each side of the front half of the hull. The letters and numbers can be no less than 3 inches in height, must contrast with the color of the background, and must be distinctly visible and legible. Hyphens must be as wide as letters and numbers other than “I” or “1.” Boat trailers do not need to be titled separately unless they weigh 2,500 lbs. empty, which probably won’t apply to boats under 26 feet, which are the subject of this article.

What are Some Criminal Offenses Regarding Boating in South Carolina?

  • Boating Under the Influence – A person can be charged with Boating Under the Influence (BUI) if there’s probable cause to believe that the person was operating a vessel while under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or both. If convicted, the person can face a jail sentence, fines, loss of boating privileges, and impounding of the boat. Click here for additional information regarding the criminal charge of BUI. The penalties become much stricter if the intoxicated driver causes property damage, bodily injury, or death.
  • Negligent Operation of a Boat – A person can be charged with negligent operation of a boating device if the person boats in a careless manner. Operating a boat at more than idle speed in a no-wake zone, failing to maintain a proper lookout for other boats or persons, operating too fast for conditions on the water, racing, or pulling a skier through a designated swimming area can each constitute negligent operation.
  • Reckless Boating – A person can be charged with reckless boating if the person boats in a reckless, willful, or wanton manner.  Weaving through congested vessel traffic at more than idle speed, jumping the wake of another vessel within two hundred feet of that vessel, crossing the path or wake of another vessel when the visibility around the other vessel is obstructed, and maintaining a collision course with another vessel or object and swerving away in near to the other vessel or object can each constitute reckless boating. Two offenses for reckless boating can result in the suspension of boating privileges.

These lists of reckless or negligent are not all-inclusive. Use your head, and at all times, understand that boats are dangerous. Keep the Rules of the Water we mentioned above in your head. Always keep in mind the safety of you, those on your boat, those on other boats, and those on the land.

What are the Fishing, Crabbing, and Shrimping Laws in South Carolina?

These laws are numerous. Check with the Department of Natural Resources before engaging in these activities if you are unfamiliar with the laws. There are limits on size and number per day for many species. Also, make sure that every person on the boat is properly licensed for the activity. Even if you have a passenger on the boat who is not actually fishing, that person should still have a license. It is important to know that violations of our fishing and gaming laws are much more serious than people believe. Jail and stiff fines are possible. Also, many types of violations allow the authorities to confiscate your boat! Also, note that it is illegal to harass or disturb wildlife with your boat unless you are lawfully fishing (also known as “angling”), hunting, or trapping wildlife. The city has eaten up enough of our land. Please leave the marine wildlife alone!

What are the Skiing Laws in South Carolina?

If you are towing a skier, then you must either have a wide-angle rear-view mirror or must have another person on board to observe the skier. Skiers must be wearing a US Coast Guard-approved PFD of proper size and fastened. No skiing may be performed after sunset or before sunrise.

What are the Boating Age Limits in South Carolina?

In South Carolina, boat operators under the age of 16 must complete a DNR-administered or approved boating course if the boat has a 15 h.p. motor or greater, or there must be an adult at least 18-years old on board. The adult cannot be under the influence of alcohol.

Boating Accidents in South Carolina

As we’ve said, boats are dangerous. There are no brakes, seatbelts, or airbags. You aren’t enclosed on a boat like you are in a car, and the possibility of getting thrown out of a boat is great. The possibility of drowning exists. We can’t stress enough that operators of boats should ensure they have the knowledge and experience required to take their passengers out and get them home safely. If an accident does occur, then the operator of the vessel has a duty to render assistance to the persons on the other vessel so long as he or she can do so without risking danger to his or her own vessel or passengers. Leaving the scene of the accident is a crime. Further, the operator of a vessel involved in an accident must report the accident to DNR whenever the accident results in loss of life, loss of consciousness, medical treatment, disability in excess of 24 hours, or property damage. Boating accidents are different from car accidents. Not only are the laws different, but everything behind the accident is different. There are no skid marks, evidence of the accident is harder to piece together, and there are often fewer witnesses on the water than on the road. If you are in a boating accident, the attorneys at Futeral & Nelson will be happy to speak with you regarding your case.

Charleston Boating Law Attorneys

We recommend any boat owners around Charleston, or anywhere else in South Carolina, to be familiar with the laws of the water. We also urge everyone to take a boating safety course before going on the water. Boats don’t have brakes! A good course is provided by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and information can be found by clicking here. After handling boating accident personal injury cases, defending those accused of boating crimes such as BUI, and personally engaging in boating activities throughout our lives, the attorneys at Futeral & Nelson know the boating laws in South Carolina. If you ever need legal assistance relating to your boat, please call us and schedule a consultation. Boating can be very fun, but don’t let your fun come at the expense of your safety and the safety of others. We hope you have a great boating season ahead!

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