Massachusetts Boating Laws, Regulations and Accidents

Massachusetts boating accident

Massachusetts boating guidelines and how to handle boat accident injuries

Even the most experienced boaters get into trouble sometimes. In the northeast, bad weather can roll in out of nowhere, and there are lots of recreational boaters out there who might speed, drink alcohol, or engage in other unsafe practices. Here’s what to do before you go out and while you’re on the water.
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They don’t call Massachusetts the Bay State for nothing.

Massachusetts has nearly 200 miles of coastline, which makes it the 10th highest for miles of coastline in the U.S. — which is a lot, considering it’s one of the smallest states by geographic size in square miles. Massachusetts is the 6th smallest state, followed by Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, and New Jersey.

Boating is an important part of the culture of New England — Massachusetts, specifically. Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Boston Harbor are some of the most recognizable and popular boating destinations on the East Coast. Boating is as ingrained in most Massachusetts residents and tourists as is a love for the Red Sox or clam chowder.

But where there are boats, there are boating accidents.

MA boating accidents
Sources: U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety Division, 2019 Recreational Boating Statistics
Facing factsThe COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a tremendous increase in boating as recreation because people were looking for “safe” fun activities that they could do on their own or with their families. However, while sales of yachts and powerboats spiked, there were also spikes in boating accidents because of increased boat traffic and inexperienced boaters. A lieutenant with the state Environmental Police said that alcohol use is the “number one contributing factor” for water accidents and fatalities. (Source: The Herald News)

5 Common types of boating accidents

1. Collisions with other boats or watercraft

Collisions are common, particularly when there’s a lot of boat traffic and inexperienced boaters on the water. Collisions can happen because of:

  • Speeding
  • Inability to control the boat
  • Negligence

Boat collisions can result in serious injuries. One reason why is that when you ride in a car, you’re usually sitting on a seat and protected by a seat belt that prevents you from flying around the car’s passenger compartment.

On a boat, however, people might be standing (or sitting) but not “attached” or restrained. So when a collision happens, they might fall or be thrown and sustain injuries from the boat dock or cabin, or they could fall overboard.

2. Flooding and swamping accidents

The greatest danger in a flooding or swamping accident is for inexperienced swimmers or those without life jackets who wind up in the water unexpectedly. There’s an even greater hazard in the cold or if other dangerous weather conditions are present.

3. Grounding

An underwater landmass or sandbar might not be visible to a boater. A boat can become stuck or grounded if it hits one of these obstacles.

4. Collision with a stationary object

A buoy, rock, or other debris can pose a significant danger if a boater isn’t paying attention or loses control of the boat.

5. Water skiing accidents

Water skiing can be great fun. And since Massachusetts boaters can remain close to shore or in bays where there’s not a lot of waves, it can be safe. However, the U.S. Coast Guard has ranked water skiing as the 5th most common type of boating accident.

There’s one distinction that separates water skiing from other types of accidents:

It’s the only type of accident that has more injuries than reported accidents.

In other words, a reportable accident doesn’t need to happen in order for a water skier to be injured. The skier could hit the water at a bad angle and be injured, fall off the skis and drown, or hit an object or the boat. A boat driver should be trained to pull a water skier — it’s a different set of skills than normal driving.

10 common causes of boat accidents

  1. Operator error. Just like distracted driving is a hazard while driving a car, so is distracted navigation on the water. A boat operator should always remain alert and aware of the physical condition of the boat, weather, water depth or other environmental conditions, and other hazards.
  2. Operator inexperience. The U.S. Coast Guard says inexperience is one of the top 3 reasons why boat accidents happen. You have to be familiar enough with your boat and how to maneuver it so that you can quickly adapt to any unexpected situation that arises on the water.
  3. Boating under the influence. We all know that drunk driving is illegal in Massachusetts when you’re behind the wheel of a car. It’s also against the law in Massachusetts to operate a boat or any other marine vessel while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You’re required to have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of lower than .08%, just like if you were driving a car.
  4. Violating navigation rules. If you don’t follow the rules for correct boat navigation, you could collide with other boats or even run aground.
  5. Lookout failures. A boat operator should have a lookout on board. Operating a boat is a big job, so it’s helpful to have another person who knows how to be on the lookout for threats or hazards. That person needs to take the responsibility seriously and be reliable in looking for what’s ahead of and behind the boat.
  6. 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 as you. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Weather conditions. Whether you’re boating on the ocean, a lake, 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. However, if you’re too far from shore, your app might not pick up a signal and you won’t get alerts. Have a transistor radio and extra batteries onboard so you can check weather forecasts and know if a storm is approaching.
  9. Waves or wakes. A “wake” is a water disturbance caused by the force of the boat’s hull or by 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.
  10. 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. Water hazards can include wrecks, obstructions, rocks, islets, breakers, or spoil areas.

There are 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.

Each of these causes of boat accidents can lead to injuries, and they can be boiled down to 4 most common occurrences:

  • Slip and fall accidents on wet surfaces
  • Boat collisions
  • Sinking or tipping
  • Fires


Many marinas offer cable, wifi, and electricity so you can charge your boat battery, power lights or appliances, or perform other functions. 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 or paralyzed by the electrical field, which can result in drowning (known as electrical shock drowning, or ESD).

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 saltwater.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide (CO2) is a colorless, odorless gas that is a poisonous byproduct of gasoline and diesel. A boat with an engine or generator produces CO2. Any boat with an enclosed compartment must have a carbon monoxide detector.

Massachusetts boating laws

Age requirements

In order to legally operate a motorboat, a person must be at least 12 years old. If the operator is younger than 12, they must be directly supervised by a person who is 18 or older.

A user must be 16 years old to operate a personal watercraft — no exceptions! A personal watercraft is a vehicle that the rider sits or stands on, as opposed to inside of, like a boat. A PWC could include a jet ski, wave runner, or similar. 

Safety certification

A child between 12 and 15 who wishes to operate a motorboat without adult supervision must complete an approved basic boating course. Upon completion, the student receives a boating safety certificate that they must keep with them on the boat.

A 16- or 17-year-old personal watercraft user must also complete a boating course.

Accident reporting requirements

If you’re in a Massachusetts boating accident that results in personal injury, fatality, or property damage totaling more than $500, you must notify the Massachusetts Environmental Police immediately and follow up by filing an accident report within 2 days for a fatality and 5 days for a non-fatal accident.

Massachusetts boating restrictions

You are not permitted to:

  • Operate a vessel under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or with a BAC of .08 or higher.
  • Operate a motorboat within 150 feet of any swimming area.
  • Operate at excessive speed, taking into consideration weather, boat traffic, and other hazards. More than 45 miles per hour is considered negligent when traveling inland.
  • Operate a motorboat without properly working lights.
  • Operate a motorboat at night with waterskiers, tubers, or other “pull-along” passengers.
  • Operate faster than headway speed (6 miles per hour or fewer) within 150 feet of a swimmer, waterskier, mooring area, marina, boat launch, or when the boat operator’s vision is obscured for any reason.
  • Operate with an overload — carrying a weight that exceeds your boat’s capacity plate recommendation.
  • Operate with passengers on the bow, gunwales, or any other place that increases their risk of falling overboard.

Massachusetts personal watercraft laws

  • You must wear an approved life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) at all times.
  • You must attach a safety lanyard to the operator and the kill switch.
  • You must operate at a no-wake speed of 6 miles per hour or fewer within 150 feet of a swimmer, the shoreline, a waterskier, a boat launch, a raft or float, or a moored or docked boat.
  • You may not operate a personal watercraft if you’re less than 16 years old
  • You may not operate a personal watercraft while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Personal watercraft may only be used between sunrise and sunset.
  • You may not operate a personal watercraft at high speed in a congested area.
  • You may not operate a personal watercraft on waters less than 75 acres.
  • You may not operate a personal watercraft while towing a person on skis, a tube, etc.

Massachusetts boat equipment requirements

In Massachusetts, a life preserver must be worn by anyone less than 12 years old, anyone using a personal watercraft, waterskiers, and canoeists/kayakers (if canoeing or kayaking from September 15 to May 15).

Every motorboat must be equipped with an anchor, manual bailer, and line. A motorboat that tows skiers must have a boarding ladder, and any boat less than 16 feet long must have a paddle or oar.

10 tips for safe boating

  1. Pay attention to the weather. Be sure to have a portable radio onboard (and an ample supply of batteries) and watch out for sudden wind shifts, lightning flashes, or choppy water that might indicate an approaching storm. Don’t exclusively rely on a mobile phone app for weather forecasts. If you sail out of your phone’s range or if the weather turns bad, you might not be able to get a phone signal.
  2. Take a safe boating course. You’ll learn methods and strategies for staying safe, and you might be able to reduce the cost of your boat insurance.
  3. Bring extra gear. Be sure you have a flashlight, extra batteries, matches, maps (physical maps in addition to mapping apps on your phone), flares, sunscreen, first aid kit, sunglasses, rainproof clothes, extra lightweight clothes for layering. Store important items in a waterproof container.
  4. Be accountable. Let a friend or family member know where you’re headed and when to expect you back. That way, if you run into trouble, someone knows when and where to send help.
  5. Check your boat. Before you leave, check that your boat is in good working condition, including equipment, boat balance, engine, and fuel supply. Open the hatches, run the blower, and make sure you don’t detect gasoline fumes in the fuel or engine areas.
  6. Be sure each person knows where to find a properly fitting life jacket and can access it easily.
  7. Anchor from the bow, not the stern, and use an anchor length at least 5 times longer than the water depth.
  8. Have the Coast Guard-required distress flag and light.

Boat equipment required under federal law:

  • Life jackets. If the boat is fewer than 16 feet, you may have 1 per person that is either Type I, II, III, IV, or Hybrid Type V. If the boat is less than 26 feet, you must have a life jacket of one of the mentioned types per person, plus 1 Type IV that can be thrown. Hybrid Type V must be worn at all times.
  • Fire extinguisher (not required on an outboard motorboat fewer than 26 feet if flammable gases or vapors cannot be entrapped)
  • Ventilation. A boat built after 1980 must have an operable power blower
  • Whistle, bell, or horn. You must have any device that can make an efficient sound signal audible for 1 mile
  • Visual distress signals (required when operating at night)
  1. Know your boat’s capacity. Your boat might have a Capacity Plate that specifies the maximum number of people it can hold and the correct size for your engine. If not, here’s how to calculate your boat’s capacity:

Measure your boat’s length. Then, measure the width. Multiply these 2 figures and divide by the average weight per person. Figure on 150 pounds as an average weight per person.

People = length x width

  1. Never drive a boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Have you heard of “boater’s hypnosis”? It actually doesn’t involve alcohol. When a boater is out for several hours and is exposed to powerboat noise, vibration, sun, glare, wind, and motion, they could experience slowed reaction times... almost like being drunk.

    When you add alcohol to this situation, it’s not good. For one thing, a tipsy person is more likely to tip overboard. Alcohol also decreases your body’s ability to withstand the effects of cold water.

    In addition, a person who is drunk could become confused in the water and actually swim down instead of up toward the water’s surface, which can lead to drowning. Even if you don’t end up overboard, boating while intoxicated is dangerous (and illegal) in the same ways as driving a motor vehicle while under the influence.

Massachusetts boat liability

Massachusetts follows a modified comparative negligence standard of law. If you have to file a lawsuit (for any personal injury in Massachusetts), you can recover for your injuries only if you’re less than 51% at fault. If your allocation of fault is 51% or higher, then you can’t recover any damages.

If you’re 50% or less at fault, the amount of your damages would be reduced by your percentage of fault.

If you need to file a lawsuit, there are 5 elements that must exist in order to make a valid claim:

  1. Duty. You must show that the defendant owed you a duty. We all have a duty to someone, and that changes based on circumstances. You don’t have to know someone or have a relationship with them in order to owe them a duty. Every boater has a duty not to cause harm to any other person on the water, whether it’s a boater, swimmer, or someone else.
  2. Breach. The second element to a personal injury claim is proving that the defendant breached their duty. In a boat accident situation, this means the operator was negligent through action or inaction. They might have been following water rules and boating cautiously, but still made an error (like misjudging speed, for example) that was negligent.
  3. Causation. Once it’s proven that the defendant acted negligently, did that negligence cause the accident? This question must be answered in order to successfully prove your claim.
  4. Injury. In order to have a valid claim, you must have suffered an injury. You can’t claim damages unless you suffered an actual injury, financial costs or property loss.
  5. Damages. As discussed above, damages are the money you can recover for your losses. Economic damages are the value you can claim for objective expenses, and non-economic losses could be for subjective claims and are based on the severity of your injuries.

If you’re able to establish these elements, then you can recover costs for medical treatment, lost wages or future earnings, property loss, pain and suffering, and wrongful death. You may recover punitive damages only for a wrongful death claim.

If you’ve been in a Massachusetts boating accident, you might need a lawyer who’s able to minimize your liability and determine what you’re owed in damages. The Enjuris law firm directory is your source for finding a Massachusetts boat accident lawyer who can help.


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