- Read our review guidelines
The Golden State is filled with opportunities to get out on the water, whether it’s the Pacific coastline or the many lakes and rivers set amidst beautiful landscapes. But you probably want to make sure you’re on the right side of the law when you head out to enjoy yourself.
We have put together some information on California kayak laws so that you can stay safe and have fun boating.
Read about our kayaking places in California here.
California Kayak & Boat Registration Laws (Do I Need To Register?)
Without A Motor
Boats, kayaks and canoes that do not have a motor attached do not need to be registered in California.
However, if you decide at a later date to attach a trolling motor or other type of motor to your kayak or canoe, you will then need to register it for it to be legally operated on California waters.
All motorized vessels must be registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). This includes kayaks and canoes that have trolling motors attached.
Once you’ve registered you will receive a Certificate of Number, a Certificate of Ownership and registration stickers. The registration numbers must be attached to the front of your vessel on both sides, so that they are clearly displayed above the waterline, with spaces or hyphens to separate the numbers from the letters.
Your registration sticker should be attached to your boat, 3 inches from your registration number, on both sides of your vessel.
How To Register
You first need to complete an Application for Vessel Certificate of Number. You also need to have your Certificate of Ownership or the receipt for your boat and pay the relevant fees. You can do this at your local California DMV office or you can send your application and documentation to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the mail.
You will then receive your certification documents so that you can use your boat on California waters. You are required to carry your Certificate of Number on board your vessel at all times. You may be given a temporary Certificate of Number so that you can use your vessel while you’re waiting for your permanent one.
A boat’s registration is valid for two years and it can be renewed online or by phone or mail.
Cost Of Registration
The fees can vary depending on whether you’re a California resident or not and whether you’re registering in an odd numbered year or not.
For a California resident in an odd numbered year, the fee is $49. For a non-resident the fee is $77.
In an even numbered year a California resident will pay $29 and a non-resident will pay $57.
You will need to renew your registration every two years and the cost of renewal is $20. There are also additional fees for transfers and duplicate documentation.
If your vessel will be used in freshwater you may also be subject to an additional fee in order to prevent invasive mussel species. This fee is $16 and is added to your registration fee. This can apply to vessels that are used in both saltwater and freshwater but does not apply to boats used solely in coastal waters.
California PFD Boating Regulations (Life Jackets/Vests)
All boats that are less than 16 feet in length must have a wearable PFD (Personal Flotation Device) on board for every person on that vessel. This can include US Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III and V PFDs that are in a serviceable condition and suitable in size for the individuals on board.
However, a Type V PFD must be worn to meet the US Coast Guard requirements.
If your boat is more than 16 feet long, and not a canoe or kayak, then you will also need to carry a throwable (Type IV) PFD on board at all times. This Type IV PFD must be in good condition and be easily accessible and available in an emergency.
All children under the age of 13 are required to wear a US Coast Guard approved PFD at all times while on board vessels that are under 26 feet in length. This applies when the vessel is underway.
What About Alcohol (BUI – Boating Under The Influence)?
Operating a boat or a towed device while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is against the law. This includes anyone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or above but it can include blood alcohol levels between 0.05% and 0.08% and if you appear to officers to be intoxicated.
If you’re convicted you could spend up to 6 months in prison and be fined up to $1000.
If you are convicted a second time, your jail time can increase to a year plus a $1000 fine. You could also be required to take part in substance abuse treatment for between 18 and 30 months.
California operates a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to anyone under 21 operating a vessel while intoxicated. This means having a blood alcohol level of more than 0.01%.
You could face a fine of $250. In addition to the fine, you could also be given a community service order or made to participate in an alcohol education program.
Other Kayak And Boating Laws In California
Invasive Species Prevention
Some registered vessels will be subject to an additional $16 fee for invasive mussel prevention, which will be added to your registration fees at the time of registering your vessel. This will give you a Mussel Fee Paid sticker that must be displayed on your boat along with your registration number and sticker.
However, this does not apply to kayaks, canoes and other non-powered vessels. It also does not apply if you use your boat in coastal waters only.
Some vessels may be inspected before you enter certain bodies of water. This is to make sure you are not at risk of spreading invasive species and bringing them into that body of water.
California Boater Card
In order to legally operate a motorized vessel in California you may have to have a California Boater Card. Eventually all boaters in California waters will have to have this card as it is being brought in gradually in age groups.
Video: New California Boater Cards
As of 2020, if you’re 35 years old or younger you must complete a boater education course. This can be done online and your certificate can be printed out immediately while you wait for your card to be sent to you in the mail.
Each year on January 1st, the minimum age increases. So from 2021, if you’re 40 and under you will need to complete the course. From 2022, it will include those 45 years and under. From 2023, the age will be 50. From 2024, the age will be 60 and in 2025 all boaters, regardless of age will be required to complete the course and carry the California Boater Card.
Do I Need Lights On My Kayak?
If you plan to kayak at night, between sunset and sunrise, then you will need a light on your boat. This applies to motorized and non-motorized kayaks, as well as motorized vessels up to 16 feet long, and applies to all bodies of water in California.
Lights can include a white light that can be displayed in sufficient time to avoid a collision. This can be a flashlight or a lantern. Tri-colored lanterns and all-round green and red lights are also allowed but you cannot use these together.
You must also carry with you a whistle or other suitable sound signalling device.
What About Maritime Distress Signals?
Maritime Distress Signals or Visual Distress Signals are only required on coastal waters under the jurisdiction of the US Coast Guard.
On a kayak or small boat (under 16 feet) you need to carry one visual distress signal device that’s suitable for nighttime. This can include an automatic electric distress light, a hand-held red flare, or a red aerial pyrotechnic flare.
If your boat is longer than 16 feet you also need to carry a daytime visual distress signal device in addition to a nighttime one (if you’re on the water between sunset and sunrise). This can include an orange flag, a hand-held orange smoke distress signal or a floating orange smoke distress signal.
Minimum Age To Kayak And Boat
California has a law that does not allow children under the age of 12 to operate a motorized vessel. Children between the ages of 12 and 15 can operate a motorized vessel as long as they are under the supervision of an adult with a California Boater Card.
Children aged 16 and 17 can operate any motorized vessel without adult supervision, provided they have a California Boater Card. Without a card, 16 and 17 year olds must be supervised by an adult who has a California Boater Card.
The age restrictions do not apply to kayaks and canoes, as there is no minimum age requirement for operating a non-motorized vessel. However, the same age restrictions that apply to motorized vessels apply to sailboats that are 30 feet or longer.
It’s important to stay safe while you’re on the water no matter where you are. But in California there are some safety laws that you need to stick to when you’re boating.
Remember that everybody on your vessel needs to have their own PFD and all children under the age of 13 need to wear theirs at all times. Another thing you might want to remember is your California Boater Card. It can be best to have one even if it’s not necessary for your age group yet, as it will be eventually.
Have you enjoyed learning about California kayaking and boating laws? Leave us a comment and share this guide if you found it helpful.
> Fishing spots around California