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Boating Safety

To help you stay safe on the water, MPD Harbor Patrol offers the following boating safety information.

Personal Floatation Devices

Most adults need an extra seven to 12 pounds of buoyancy to keep their heads above water. A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) can provide that "extra lift" to keep you afloat until help comes. Your weight isn't the only factor in how much "extra lift" you need. A person's body fat, lung size, clothing, and water conditions are also important.

All boats must have a wearable type PFD for each person on board or being towed. Each PFD must be in good condition, readily available, and the proper size for the intended wearer. In addition, boats 16 feet in length or longer must carry a Type IV throwable device. For example, if there are four people on your 16-foot boat, you must have at least five PFDs—four wearable PFDs and one throwable device.

When selecting a PFD, read the label to make sure it is for a person of your size and weight. You also need to consider the type of boating you will be doing and where you plan to do it. Try your PFD on to make sure it is comfortably snug and test it in shallow water to see how it handles. Make sure that your PDF keeps your chin above water and that you can breathe easily.

Types of PDFs

Type I (Off-Shore Life Jacket) (22 lbs buoyancy)

  • Where: Best for open, rough or remote water, where rescue may be slow in coming.
  • Advantages: Floats you best. Turns most unconscious wearers face-up in water. Highly visible color.
  • Disadvantages: Bulky
  • Sizes: Two sizes to fit most children and adults.

Type II (Near-Shore Buoyant Vest) (15.5 lbs buoyancy)

  • Where: Good for calm, inland water, or where there is a good chance of fast rescue.
  • Advantages: Will turn many unconscious wearers face-up in water. Less bulky, more comfortable than Type I.
  • Disadvantages: Not for long hours in rough water. Will not turn some unconscious wearers face up in water.
  • Sizes: Infant, Child-small, Child-medium, Adult

Type III (Flotation Aid) (15.5 lbs buoyancy)

  • Where: Good for calm, inland water or where there is a good chance of fast rescue.
  • Advantages: Generally the most comfortable for continuous wear. Freedom of movement for water skiing, small boat sailing, fishing, etc. Available in many styles, including vests and flotation coats.
  • Disadvantages: Not for rough water. Wearer may have to tilt head back to avoid face down position in water.
  • Sizes: Many individual sizes from Child-small to Adult.

Type IV (Throwable Device)

  • Where: For calm, inland water with heavy boat traffic, where help is always nearby.
  • Advantages: Can be thrown to someone. Good back-up to wearable PFD. Some can be used as seat cushions.
  • Disadvantages: Not for unconscious persons. Not for non-swimmers or children. Not for many hours in rough water.
  • Kinds: Cushions, rings, and horseshoe buoys.

Type V (Special Use Device)

  • Where: Only for special uses or conditions.
  • Advantages: Made for specific activity. Varieties include boardsailing vests, deck suits, work vests, hybrid PFDs and others.
  • Disadvantages: See label for limited use.

Type V (Hybrid Device)

  • Required to be worn to be counted as a regulation PFD.
  • Advantages: Least bulky of all types. High flotation when inflated. Good for continuous wear.
  • Disadvantages: May not adequately float some wearers unless partially inflated. Requires active use and care of inflation chamber.
  • Performance level: Equal to either Type I, II, or III performance as noted on label.

PFD Care

The PDF will stay in good condition if you follow these instructions:

  • Don't alter your PFD. If it does not fit, get one that does.
  • Don't put heavy objects on your PFD or use it for a kneeling device or boat fender. PDFs lose buoyancy when crushed.
  • Let your PFD drip-dry thoroughly before you put it away. Always stow it in a well-ventilated place.
  • Don't leave your PFD on board for long periods when the boat is not in use.
  • Never dry your PFD on a radiator, heater, or any other direct heat source.
  • Practice throwing your Type IV PFD; cushions throw best underhand.



Boating Safety Courses, 2024

The MPD Harbor Patrol Unit will be hosting free one-day, 8-hour boating safety courses for the 2023 boating season. Each class includes the course materials. The Boating Safety course is designed to educate boaters of the legal requirements, navigational rules, safety equipment, risks of boating accidents, and other issues pertaining to safe boating. Anyone operating a vessel on District of Columbia waterways is required to have a Boating Safety Certificate. The Boating Safety Certificate is issued to individuals who successfully complete the Boating Safety course.


Pre-registration for the Boating Safety course is required. Please call the MPD Harbor Patrol Unit at (202) 727-4582 to register.

Course Schedule

The Boating Safety course consists of eight hours of instruction offered in one-day classes. Each class begins at 7 am and ends at 3 pm. Courses are offered at the Harbor Patrol's offices, 550 Water Street, SW, in Washington, DC. The training is free; photo ID is required.

Each class is limited to 15 students. Masks are required.

  • Sunday, March 10

  • Saturday, March 23         

  • Saturday, April 13

  • Sunday, April 28

  • Sunday, May 5

  • Saturday, May 18  

  • Saturday, June 8     

  • Sunday, June 23

  • Saturday, July 13

  • Sunday, July 28

  • Saturday, August 3

  • Sunday, August 18

  • Saturday, September 7

  • Sunday, September 22

  • Saturday, October 12    


Preparing for Hurricanes or Severe Weather

The MPD Harbor Patrol offers the following tips for preparing for hurricanes or other severe weather:

  • Double the mooring lines on your vessel. Add additional fenders.
  • Take down all deck canvas such as Biminis, sea hoods, covers, flags and antennas. Remove all loose equipment on your vessel.
  • Sailboats should have their sails taken down and stored.
  • Live aboards should ensure that they have fuel in the event they must run on a generator. Make sure they have extra batteries for flashlights and cell phones.
  • As in any boating environment, if you are going to be on or around the water, wear your life jacket.

Additional Information

  • NOAA Marine Weather Safety Rules


Personal Watercraft: Preparation and Getting Underway

Operators and passengers should be competent swimmers; but be aware that if you have a problem on the water, you may not be able to swim to shore. Maintain the watercraft in good condition and be prepared before you leave. Check your watercraft before every outing, and use your personal watercraft owner's manual for specific information.

Equipment and Things to check include:

  • Steering - Check for proper steering operation
  • Throttle - Make sure the throttle works freely and returns to the idle position when released
  • Jet jump cover - Check the jet jump cover and inlet grate for looseness
  • Ventilate engine compartment - Open the engine cover. Keep it open for several minutes to vent gasoline fumes
  • Fuel leaks - Check for fuel leaks and gasoline fumes from the tank, fuel lines, and carburetor
  • Oil leaks - Check for oil leaks
  • Hose connection - Be sure all hose connections and hose clamps are tight. Check hoses for cracks and deterioration, replace if necessary
  • Drain bilge - Drain water from the engine compartment. Be sure the bilge system is operating properly
  • Fuel level - Check the fuel tank level, refill if necessary, and turn the fuel valve to ON. Use the following rule to prevent running out of fuel: 1/3 going out, 1/3 coming back, 1/3 reserve. (Not counting the fuel reserve tank.)
  • Engine oil level - Check the oil level gauge and refill if necessary
  • Battery - Make sure the battery is full and fully charged, and check cable connections to ensure they are tight
  • Hull damage - Inspect the hull for damage
  • Engine cover (hood) - Check that the engine cover latches are secure
  • Fire extinguisher - Be sure you have a fully charged fire extinguisher
  • Stop button - Start the engine, run it for a few seconds, and then check that the engine stop button works
  • Lanyard switch - If your watercraft has a shut-off lanyard, or other device, make certain it's on board and working properly
  • Rider protection - Always wear a PFD and appropriate protective gear
  • Trailer - Check your trailer lights, wheel bearings, and tires. Secure your watercraft to the trailer and be sure the engine hood and all latches are secure
  • PFD - A US Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device should be worn by the operator and passenger(s). (This is the law in many states.)
  • Eye protection - Water spray in your eyes can affect your vision. Wear glasses, goggles, or wraparound eye protection
  • Foot protection - Foot protection keeps you from sliding and helps you avoid scrapes and bruises
  • Gloves - Gloves will help you hold on to wet controls and also provide protection during docking and loading
  • Wetsuit - In cold water, you may want to consider a wetsuit. Hypothermia, an abnormally low body temperature, is a real danger in cold, or even cool, water
  • Helmet - A helmet provides protection against head injuries, one of the main injuries suffered

When starting your personal watercraft, make certain you are in deep enough water. Check your owner's manual for recommendations. Be sure the water is free of debris, weeds, and trash, and make certain the path ahead is clear. Always attach the safety shut-off lanyard to your wrist or PFD before you start the engine.

Once aboard with the motor running, apply enough throttle to provide steerage. Idle away from the dock until you are in clear water and away from traffic. Get the feeling of how the craft handles. After looking around, make gentle left and right turns and check throttle operation.


Personal Watercraft: Safety Rules and Guidelines

Operator’s Duties When Underway


An operator is responsible for his or her own safety, the safety of any passenger, the watercraft, and any damage the watercraft's wake may cause. Use common sense to prevent mishaps.

Be thoroughly familiar with the way the boat handles. Know the stopping distances and turning radius. Avoid taking unnecessary risks that could endanger life, limb, or property. Before performing any rapid maneuvers, check for other traffic right, left, and behind you to prevent a collision.

Obey no-wake zones. Keep a sharp lookout for swimmers, skiers, and other traffic. Go slowly until you are in a clear area. Many areas have speed restrictions, either close to shore or in certain channels. Obey the signs and use common sense. Look for no-wake buoys and swimming areas. When operating in a harbor area, be considerate and go slow enough to not create a wake.

Keep an eye out for changing weather conditions and be prepared to act if the water or weather requires. Know and practice the rules of the road.


Noise carries farther on water, particularly when it is otherwise quiet. During early morning and late afternoon, stay away from shoreline areas with homes, campgrounds, or similar areas. Change your operating area often; even if your craft does not exceed the sound limits, the constant noise from operating in the same area causes many complaints. Do not modify your exhaust if this results in a higher noise level.

Falling Off and Reboarding

Your personal watercraft was designed to allow you to fall off and reboard. It is quite different from other boats, where falling overboard is almost always dangerous.

Personal watercraft are designed in two different versions: engine idling and engine shut-off. The idling watercraft continues to circle slowly when the operator falls off. The automatic shut-off version stops the engine with a special lanyard.

Both versions require some action by the operator of the personal watercraft. For circling boats, the operator/owner must set the engine idle speed to the proper level. Instructions are located within the owner's manual. For engine shut-off craft, the lanyard must be attached properly before operating the machinery. Operators should be prepared to spend some time in the water and use special care when riding in heavy traffic. While learning, however, operators should practice in a lighter traffic area.

District of Columbia Rules

In the District, an operator may not jump the wake of another vessel within 100 yards of the vessel. When two or more personal watercraft are operating at a speed of 10 mph or greater, drivers must maintain a separation of at least 25 yards between the personal watercraft.

Water Skiing

In addition to watercraft riding, water skiing is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. The weather and water conditions for both of these activities increase the chance that watercraft operators will share the area with water skiers. Since a personal watercraft is much more maneuverable than a boat towing a water skier, watercraft operators should stay out of the way of boats and skiers and keep a watch out for skiers in the water nearby.


Register Your Vessel with OVERS

According to DC law, any vessel that is operated primarily on waters in the District of Columbia must be registered annually with DC Boat Registration Office. OVERS (Online Vessel Registration System) is the Metropolitan Police Department's online e-commerce tool that allows users to renew their vessel registration from the comfort of their own home... or boat.