Boat Excursions Raise the Darndest Questions

They say the only thing better than having a boat is having a friend with a boat.  In my case, that friend is my brother-in-law, who not only has a boat, but also is a stickler for boating safety.  That didn’t stop my kids, however, from questioning his every move over Memorial Day weekend.  He knew all of the answers off the top of his head, but I had to look up the statutory citations.  In the event you are lucky enough to have a friend or close relative with a boat (or to own one yourself), here is what we learned.

1. Why is Uncle Ricky counting all of the life vests? 

State Wildlife Resources Commission regulations adopted pursuant to G.S. 75A-6 require that one personal flotation device be on board and readily accessible for each person aboard the vessel before it may be operated on the waters of the State.   15A NCAC 10F .0201(b)(1). The personal flotation devices must be in serviceable condition; of appropriate size and fit for the intended wearer; approved by the United States Coast Guard; and legibly marked with its approval number.  Id.(b)(5).

2. Why do I have to wear my life vest?  You aren’t wearing yours, mom. 

Any child under 13 years old who is aboard a non-commercial vessel that is underway (meaning that the vessel is not at anchor, made fast to the shore, or aground) must wear an appropriate personal flotation device approved by the Coast Guard.  The rule does not apply if the child is below decks or in an enclosed cabin.  15A NCAC 10F .0201(b)(3).

Each person riding on a personal watercraft (such as a Jet Ski), in contrast—whether adult or child—must wear an approved personal flotation device.  G.S. 75A-13.3(d).

3.  Who enforces these rules anyway?

Wildlife protectors and other State law enforcement officers, including Marine Fisheries Inspectors, are authorized to enforce the boating laws set forth in Chapter 75A of the General Statutes.  G.S. 75A-17. Indeed, G.S. 75A-17(a) authorizes such officers to stop any vessel subject to Chapter 75A and, after identifying themselves as law enforcement officers, to board and inspect any such vessel. There may, however, be limitations on that authority.  While the North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Pike, 139 N.C. App. 96, 99-100 (2000), upheld officers’ authority to carry out suspicionless stops of vessels at sea to verify compliance with statutory safety regulations, the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina held in Klutz v. Beam, 374 F. Supp. 1129, 1133 (W.D.N.C. 1973) that the warrantless search of a houseboat by armed officers on a land-locked lake was “an oppressive and unreasonable—and unconstitutional— burden not justified by the considerations of sanitation and safety advanced by the state.”

4.  What’s the penalty?

Failure to stop a vessel when directed to do so by a law enforcement officer is a Class 2 misdemeanor.  G.S. 75A-17(e).

Violation of the boating equipment regulations and safety statutes cited above is an infraction punishable by a $50 fine.  G.S. 75A-18. A person responsible for such an infraction may not be assessed court costs. Id. Such violations are waivable offenses, meaning that a person cited for such a violation may remit payment of a fine and waive his or her right to a hearing on the matter.

Wildlife protectors and marine fisheries inspectors are authorized in certain circumstances to issue warning tickets to offenders in lieu of initiating criminal prosecutions and, presumably, citations for infractions. G.S. 113-140. A warning ticket may not be issued if the offender has previously been charged with or issued a warning ticket for a similar offense. Id.

5. Can our cousin drive a jet-ski?  He’s only 15.

Yes, provided he has completed a boating safety education course, has proof of that as well as proof of his age (since he must be at least 14 years old) on his person, and is accompanied by a person who is at least 18 years old and who is in compliance with the requirements of G.S. 75A-16.2.  G.S. 75A-13.3.

Other vessels may be operated by any person under onboard direct supervision of a person who is at least 18 years of age and who meets the requirements of G.S. 75A-16.2.

Reports from the Administrative Office of the Courts indicate that not everyone is as much of a safety stickler as my brother-in-law.  Statewide, in 2013, there were more than 350 charges for operating a vessel without a life-saving device.  There were more than 70 charges each for personal watercraft violations and boating safety education violations.

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