Do I Need A License To Sail A Boat?

Do I Need A License To Sail A Boat? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Do I Need a License to Sail a Boat?

Many scenic water bodies are offering recreational enjoyment all across the United States. But before heading out on the water, it’s of great importance that you’re familiar with sailing laws and license requirements, have sailing education, and adhere to safe sailing procedures.

Do I need a license to sail a boat? This is perhaps one of the first questions you should ask yourself before venturing out on the water to sail a boat. You certainly do not want to find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Simply put, sailing a boat is as strict in terms of test competency as it is when it comes to a car license. This is because there are varying laws and registration requirements depending on each state. In other words, some states require you to obtain a license to sail a boat.

Unlike places like the UK and Australia, the United States does not have a clear-cut law on whether you need a license to sail a boat. In other words, it’s mandatory in some states that you must have a license to sail a boat whilst it’s not mandatory in other states. As such, you should know the legal requirements of the state that you’re planning to sail your boat before venturing out on the water.

In this brief guide, let’s take a look at various legal requirements while highlighting where you must or must not have a license to sail a boat.


Table of contents

State by State Legal Requirements

At the moment, there are only eight states that do not require you to have a license to sail a boat within their waterways. They include:

  • California
  • Arizona
  • Alaska
  • Idaho
  • Wyoming
  • Maine
  • South Dakota
  • Arkansas

All the remaining states have individual laws and licensing requirements that can differ from state to state. It’s important to note that a handful of these states will require you to obtain an official sailing license. However, most of them will require you to complete a mandatory safety course to be allowed to sail a boat.

Here’s a law map of the states that require a license to sail a boat and those that don’t.

States where you'll need (or don't need) a sailing license

The United States Coast Guard Captain’s License (USCG)

When it comes to recreational sailing, the USCG isn’t a legal requirement. It, however, remains one of the most popular qualifications for the sailor looking to advance their sailing skills, especially in terms of maritime rules and regulations. For commercial sailors, the USCG is of great importance given that it is one of the requirements when it comes to the strict rules regarding carrying passengers.

OUPV Commercial License

The most common type of license under the USCG is the Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV). With this license, you can operate a vessel weighing up to 100 tons or a vessel carrying up to six passengers. This is essentially why this license is also popularly referred to as a 6-Pack license. With this license, you can operate recreational vessels that are usually used in scuba diving, tour cruises, and charter fishing.

To get this license, you’ll be required to log 360 days on the water since your 16th birthday. A day in water generally means that you have to spend at least 4 hours on the water while spending 12 hours on the water can be logged as 1.5 days. In essence, the OUPV is meant to test your seamanship knowledge, navigation skills, and understanding of rules and regulations. These are minimum requirements that must be tested formally before you can be officially referred to as “Captain”. It’s surely not an easy task but quite manageable if you put in the hours and pay close attention.

You should, however, keep in mind that the OUPV captain’s license is not legally required for recreational boaters, especially if you do not have any intention of operating a commercial vessel now or in the future. In most cases, the boating licenses set by states are generally meant to brush up on safety and navigational skills. But it’s still nice to go for the OUPV license, especially if you like the pride that comes when you achieve such a distinguished designation.

Master Captain’s License

The USCG Master’s License is the highest level of license that you can acquire as far as sailing is concerned. It allows you to operate vessels in increments of up to 100 tons. This will largely depend on your boating experience and the number of hours logged. It’s important to note that you do not have to obtain an OUPV captain’s license as a requirement to get a Master Captain’s License. In other words, you can skip the OUPV captain’s license and go straight to the Master Captain’s License. 

This license allows you to perform the operational duties of an OUPV license. It also allows you to operate Inspected Passenger Vessels that are officially approved to have seven or more passengers aboard. But to be eligible to operate a vessel that can carry seven or more passengers, you must also have a USCG Auxiliary Sailing Endorsement. You should also get the Assistance Towing Endorsements if you want to commercially assist ground vessels at a fee.

Sailboat Captain’s License

You should always remember that the USCG is very different from the US Sailing Association and the American Sailing Association. While the USCG provides sailing license, the USSA and the ASA provide sailing certification programs. In other words, the USCG gives you the license to operate a boat while the USSA and ASA teach you how to sail a boat.

In essence, it’s important to go for the USSA and ASA if you want to learn how to operate a vessel but choose the USCG if you want a license to operate a vessel. So whether you want to be the captain of a fishing boat as a guide or a passenger’s vessel, you’ll need a USCG license. To this end, it’s quite clear that recreational sailing in the United States is regulated in different ways depending on the state, the size of the vessel, and the number of passengers it is approved to carry. It’s important to check out whether or not you require a sailing license to operate a vessel in your state before venturing out on the water.

Do I Need A License To Sail A Boat?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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