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Ahoy, Maryland! A Guide to Responsible Boating

Splashing Under The Bridge by Theressia Shoup

Splashing Under The Bridge by Theressia Shoup

Anyone who lives in Maryland knows we are a water state. With 623 square miles of inland waterways plus the Chesapeake Bay, coastal bays behind barrier islands to the Atlantic Ocean, and three miles offshore of the ocean itself, it’s no wonder that 160,000-plus boats were registered in Maryland last year.

The boating industry is also a top economic contributor to Maryland with an annual impact of almost $3.5 billion, according to the Marine Trades Association of Maryland (MTAM).

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources wants everyone to enjoy safe boating! Always chart a course that keeps you safe and our waterways healthy. If you or someone you know plans to join the fun on our waterways, here’s a guide of everything you need to know.

Learning the Basics
In Maryland, the law specifies that anyone born on or after July 1, 1972, must have a Certificate of Boating Safety Education in order to operate a mechanically propelled vessel on Maryland waterways. The state offers eight-hour-minimum in-person trainings that are taught by trained instructors, as well as online classes. While there is no opportunity to ask questions in the online classes since there are no instructors, you can study at home, on your own schedule, and at your own pace. Visit for the dates and times of classes being offered.

Don’t forget your decals! Any vessel featuring mechanical propulsion and registered with Maryland must display a vessel registration number and a registration decal (left) alongside the number on both sides of the forward portion, or bow, of your vessel at all times. A Chesapeake Bay & Coastal Fishing Boat decal (right) is a voluntary add-on option that satisfies the state’s recreational fishing license requirement for all individuals on board when fishing in Maryland’s tidal waters.

Buying a Boat—the Paperwork
All mechanically operated boats in Maryland must be registered with the DNR. Once you’ve found a boat to purchase you can contact a Service Center or go online to get your registration. A portion of your registration fees go into the state Waterway Improvement Fund, which DNR administers and uses to pay for dredging, public access, safety equipment like fire boats for local first responders, and other ways to keep you safe on the water. Boat trailers need to be registered by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA).

In Maryland, there is no requirement to purchase insurance for your boat or personal watercraft, but the department recommends you consider it to protect yourself and your equipment, especially if you intend to have your boat lifted out of the water seasonally or for maintenance. Another popular boating insurance product is boat towing insurance, in case you experience a propulsion failure while underway.

You may be able to receive a discount on your boat insurance policy for having completed a Maryland Boating Safety Education program—make sure you ask the boat insurance provider if they will recognize your official completion certificate. 


A bustling Annapolis Harbor during summertime

Safe and Responsible Boating
There are a lot of choices when it comes to personal flotation devices (PFDs). Making sure you properly fit yourself, family, friends, and all crew/passengers with the right PFD type is the responsibility of the boat owner. Explore how you would get a person back aboard safely if you or your passenger were to fall overboard while underway. You and your passengers should practice putting on PFDs before going out on the open water —trying to figure them out in an emergency situation would be difficult and dangerous.

Also remember that your boat’s wake is an extension of your boat. You are solely responsible for it!

And one important factor is often overlooked—always check the marine weather forecast before you go. Every summer, the Maryland Natural Resources Police respond to boating accidents due to rough waves and inclement weather. The weather can change in an instant—which makes it essential that all boaters check the weather before leaving shore and remain watchful for ominous weather signs.

Boaters out on the water should head for shore without delay at the first sign of threatening weather approaching. A good tip for keeping a watchful eye on severe weather is to look west, the direction from which most poor weather arrives.

If a storm can’t be avoided while on the water, boaters must ensure everyone aboard is wearing a life jacket in case the boat overturns. If lightning is frequent, passengers should stay below deck and avoid objects that are not grounded to the vessel.

Here are more tips to ensure a safe, fun-filled boating experience: 

• Leave a float plan—let a loved one know where you are going and when you will be back.
• Make sure there is one U.S. Coast Guard-approved, wearable life jacket per person and extras.
• Attach a whistle to each life jacket.
• Have a working horn on board.
• Carry at least one fire extinguisher, per Coast Guard rules, and make sure it is readily accessible.
• Make sure flares aren’t expired.
• Have all required navigation lights.
• Bring a flashlight and spare batteries.
• Carry a toolbox with tools.
• Have a first-aid kit appropriately fit-ted for your type of boating.
• Top off fuel tanks and check the engine oil and coolant levels.
• Have a radio on board to receive weather updates and communications with other boats.
• Visually inspect lines for chafe or wear, and replace them as necessary

What’s Out There?
The DNR website can also help you lo-cate more than 425 public boating access sites in Maryland and get site details. The DNR mobile app provides outdoor enthusiasts with the tools needed to enjoy everything the great outdoors have to offer. With the touch of a screen, users can locate ramps, share photos, make park reservations, identify fish and more.

Following these rules and responsibilities on our waterways may seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth the effort. We wish you fair winds and following seas!

Mike Simonsen is the Boating Stakeholder Coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Article appears in Vol. 24, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2021.