Maryland’s shoreline includes the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Potomac River, and Chesapeake Bay. Both the bay and the river are shared with Virginia, though there are areas that are completely within Maryland’s borders.
Recreational boating represents more than 20,000 jobs in Maryland. Boating is crucial to the state’s economy, and tourism-related boating is thriving (source). Most tourists and Marylanders will head to Ocean City, Sandy Point State Park, Assateague Island National Seashore, and North Beach for waterfront enjoyment on the 31 miles of the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay coastlines.
Boating is fun (unless you get seasick!), can be profitable, and it is a great way to see sights that you can’t see from land. But boating accidents and injuries happen — and they might be more common than you think.
That figure includes 626 deaths, 2,613 injuries, and $42 million of damage to property. A reported 80% of boaters who drowned were using vessels that were fewer than 21 feet long. The leading contributor to fatal boating accidents was alcohol use, which was a factor in 17% of the reported fatalities. (source)
Maryland boating laws and regulations
Personal flotation devices (PFDs)
Maryland law requires that there’s a PFD (life jacket) available for each person onboard the vessel. Each PFD must be Coast Guard-approved, in good condition, readily available, and the correct size for the wearer. A person being towed is considered “on board” and is required to wear a PFD; this includes occupants of a personal watercraft (PWC).
You must also have either a ring buoy or seat cushion PFD for a boat that’s 16 feet or longer.
A child under age 13 is required to wear a life jacket any time they are on a vessel fewer than 21 feet long, unless they are below deck, the vessel is moored or anchored, or the child is in an enclosed cabin.
Boating under the influence
BUI (or boating under the influence) is a serious offense in Maryland. A boater whose blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08% or higher is presumed to be under the influence of alcohol. If a person is impaired by alcohol or drugs, they can still be found guilty of BUI.
The penalty for BUI is up to 1 year in jail and fines up to $1,000.
Marine officers are also permitted to conduct random safety inspections that include boarding your boat.
Personal watercraft laws
A personal watercraft (usually a water scooter like a Jet Ski®) has additional requirements in Maryland:
- A person born after July 1, 1972 is required to have a certificate of boating safety education approved by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in order to operate a motorized vessel or personal watercraft (PWC).
- You must be at least 16 years old and have a boating safety certificate in order to operate a PWC.
- A PWC operator and passengers must wear USCG-approved personal flotation devices.
- A PWC must remain at 6 knots or slower when within 100 feet of another PWC, pier, pilings, bridge structure, abutment, or people in the water.
- You may not operate a PWC where the water is less than 18 inches deep, unless crossing or overtaking.
- A PWC may not come within 300 feet of a person swimming or fishing in the water.
- If you’re towing a person on a tube or water skis, the PWC must have the capacity for the operator, observer, and each person being towed.
- A PWC must have a kill switch or cut-off switch.
- You may not negligently operate a PWC, which includes splashing, racing, or intentionally throwing passengers overboard.
- You may not operate a PWC between sunset and sunrise.
- A PWC operated in Maryland must be registered in the state and have a regulation sticker properly affixed to the device.
- Deep Creek Lake has additional restrictions for PWCs. They are not permitted between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Memorial Day weekend and at those times on weekends and holidays from July 1st through Labor Day.
Maryland boat registration
All motorized water vessels must be registered and issued a Maryland Certificate of Number by the Department of Natural Resources. This includes any vessel that’s powered by gasoline, diesel, or an electric motor.
The exemptions are:
- Sailboats or other non-motorized vessels
- Vessels registered in another state
- Vessels only used for racing and have a valid racing number
- Public service vessels owned by federal or state governments
- Vessels from another country that will be in Maryland waters for less than 90 days
- U.S. Coast Guard-documented vessels
Common causes of boating accidents
We’d all like to believe that we can spend a day safely on a boat and the only hazard to worry about is remembering to apply sunscreen.
But unfortunately, people are injured in boat accidents far too frequently.
These are the 10 most common causes of boating accidents:
- Operator error. Just like distracted driving is a hazard on the road, so is distracted navigation on the water. A boat operator should always monitor the physical condition of the boat, weather, water depth or other environmental conditions, and other hazards.
- Operator inexperience. Experience matters. The U.S. Coast Guard says inexperience is one of the top 3 reasons why boat accidents happen. In addition to understanding how to drive your boat, you also need to be prepared for the unexpected and know how to quickly (and safely) modify your course or react in an emergency.
- Boating under the influence. As mentioned above, it’s both illegal and dangerous to operate a boat if you’ve been drinking.
- Violating navigation rules. If you don’t follow the rules for correct boat navigation, you could collide with other boats or even run aground.
- Lookout failures. A boat operator should have a lookout onboard. It’s helpful to have another person who knows how to be on the lookout for threats or hazards. That person needs to take this responsibility seriously and be reliable in looking for what’s ahead of and behind the boat.
- Speeding. When you speed, you have less time to react if there’s a hazard in your path. If you’re an experienced boater, it’s important to remember that not every boater will be as skilled or as experienced. They might not gauge speed accurately as you approach, or they might not be able to maneuver as smoothly or quickly as they should. Therefore, maintaining a reasonable speed keeps everyone safe.
- Equipment failure. The owner of a boat is responsible for making sure that everything is working properly and the vessel has been properly maintained. Even if you’re renting a boat for a few hours, do a quick inspection before you head out to make sure it looks like the crucial systems are in good working condition.
- Weather conditions. Whether you’re boating on the ocean, a lake, river, or any body of water, it’s important to check the weather before you go. Storms can approach quickly and with little warning. Consider downloading an app that sends you notifications of weather alerts.
- Waves or wakes. A “wake” is a water disturbance caused by the force of the boat’s hull or from the forces of other boats nearby. If you’re unprepared to maneuver your boat through a large wave or wake, it can cause you to capsize or collide.
- Hazardous water conditions. There are some water hazards that you can prepare for ahead of time. Understanding tides, knowing the depth of the water, and having a map of where rocks and other permanent obstacles are located is important.But there are also unforeseen circumstances when water conditions might change quickly, and you need to be able to manage those, too. For example, a wind-against-tide condition increases the wind speed you’re experiencing and creates short, steep waves that could be dangerous. When the wind and tide are moving in the same direction, the effective wind speed is slower.Common examples of water hazards include:
- Coral reefs
- Spoil areas
Electrocution and carbon monoxide hazards
Electrocution and carbon monoxide poisoning is uncommon, but they do happen occasionally.
Many marinas offer cable, wifi, and electricity to charge your boat battery, power lights or appliances, and perform other functions. But dock wiring can produce a stray electrical current and the electrical fault from a boat could energize the water. If a person is swimming or in the water nearby, they could be electrocuted. They can also be paralyzed by the electrical field, which can result in drowning (known as electrical shock drowning, or ESD).
Further complicating the situation is the fact that a rescuer who enters the water can also sustain an electrical shock with paralyzing effects. This hazard happens in freshwater marinas (lakes or rivers), but not in salt water.
Carbon monoxide, or CO2, is a colorless, odorless gas that is a poisonous byproduct of gasoline or diesel. Any boat with an engine or generator, including outboard motors, produces carbon monoxide. Every boat with enclosed compartments must be equipped with functioning CO2 detectors.
Liability for a boating accident
You might already be familiar with how liability works for a car accident. Usually, the person who is at fault for the accident is the person who’s financially responsible for damages (costs).
The same is true under Maryland state law for a boating accident.
Maryland follows the pure contributory negligence rule of fault. Therefore, if you had any fault for the accident, you can’t recover any damages from the other party in a lawsuit.
Jurisdiction for a boat accident
If you’re considering a personal injury lawsuit after a boat accident, it’s important to determine which court has jurisdiction (in other words, where to file your lawsuit).
Most personal injury cases begin in state trial courts and only go to federal court if there’s an appeal. However, Article III of the U.S. Constitution says that the federal court system has original jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases.
This means your boating accident case would likely first originate in the federal court and doesn’t need to go through the state court.
All damages or injuries, including property damage, caused by vessels on the high seas or navigable waters are usually resolved in federal court. The “high seas” are beyond the jurisdiction of any country, and navigable waters are those in interstate or foreign commerce.
The only scenario where a state court might have jurisdiction in a boating accident is if it’s a personal lawsuit against the owner of a boat.
What to do after a Maryland boating accident (5 steps)
- Stop your vessel and assist anyone who might be injured.The exception is if stopping would endanger your vessel or passengers. Try to recover any person who has fallen overboard. If the vessel is unsafe but you have floating debris, climb on and signal for help. Do not leave the scene.
- Call or radio for help, or signal for help using a distress flare.Use your onboard radio to call for help. If your radio isn’t operational, use visual distress signals to get the attention of nearby boaters. Daytime distress signals include raising an orange distress flag as high as possible or using handheld orange smoke flares. Nighttime distress signals include SOS electrical signal (flashing) lights or red flares.
- Gather information from other boaters.Just like you would after a car accident, obtain information from each involved person. Provide your name, address, and the vessel’s identifying information to all injured parties (and take the information from them, as well).
- Submit a written report to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. If a person dies, goes missing, or receives any medical treatment beyond First Aid, you must make a report within 48 hours of the accident.If there is property damage totaling $2,000 or more, or if a vessel is destroyed in the accident, you must file a report within 10 days.
If a vessel registered in Maryland is in any accident outside Maryland waters that leads to death, disappearance, or injury, or if the damages are $2,000 or more, the report must be made within 30 days of the accident.
- Contact a Maryland boat accident lawyer.You could be dealing with multiple states’ laws in a boating accident, or with federal laws. For that reason, a personal injury lawsuit can be complex. You also might need to rely on experts in order to determine how the accident happened and who was at fault.If you were injured, the key to a boating accident lawsuit is to have your entire injury costs covered and to minimize your liability if the other party claims that you contributed to the degree of fault. You can contact a Maryland injury lawyer for advice and guidance, and to help you file a lawsuit if that’s the best course of action for your claim.