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It's the Law

In addition to the laws mentioned previously, here are some other Massachusetts regulations that apply when vessel operators are on the water.

Unlawful Operation

Massachusetts law states that these dangerous operating practices are illegal.

Reckless or Negligent Operation of a vessel is the failure to exercise the degree of care necessary to prevent endangering the life, limb, or property of any person. Examples of reckless or negligent operation are:

  • Operating at high speed or erratically in congested waterway traffic
  • Operating such that your vessel or another vessel must swerve abruptly or cut speed in order to avoid collision
  • Operating near or through areas being used by swimmers or divers
  • Operating such that your vessel collides with another vessel, object, or person
  • Operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Cutting through a regatta or marine parade in progress
  • Operating between sunset and sunrise without displaying navigation lights
  • Chasing or harassing wildlife with your vessel


As an owner of a vessel, you are responsible if you allow others to operate your vessel in an illegal manner or without the required equipment.

Improper Speed or Distance is not maintaining a proper speed and/or distance while operating a vessel. Specifically, it is illegal to operate any vessel:

  • At a distance from other vessels or at a speed that exceeds safe and reasonable limits given the waterway traffic; marked speed limits; visibility; wind, water, and current conditions; and the proximity of navigational hazards
  • At greater than 45 miles per hour on any inland waters of Massachusetts, except on areas posted otherwise
  • At any speed within the following swimming areas:
    • 150 feet of shorelines used as swimming areas
    • 75 feet of floats or markers that designate swimming areas
  • At a rate of speed that creates a wake that causes damage, injury, or excessive rocking to other vessels, rafts, or floats
  • At more than headway speed under any of the following conditions:
    • Within 150 to 300 feet of shorelines used as swimming areas
    • Within 150 feet of marinas, ramps, rafts, or floats
    • Within 150 feet of swimmers
    • When vision is obscured by bridges, bends in the waterway, or any other reason
    • When operating in a channel, unless channel markers state that higher speeds are allowed

“Headway Speed” is the minimum speed at which a vessel may be operated and still maintain steering, but does not exceed 6 miles per hour.

Riding on the Bow or Gunwales is allowing passengers to ride on the bow, gunwales, or any other place where there may be a chance of falling overboard.

Failure to Follow Navigation Rules is operating a vessel on Massachusetts waters in violation of the navigation rules as contained in the Code of Massachusetts Regulations, Section 323, CMR 2.07(13).

Overloading or Overpowering is loading or powering the vessel beyond the safe load and power limits, taking into consideration weather and other operating conditions. The safe load and power limits for most vessels are shown on the capacity plate installed by the vessel manufacturer (see Vessel Capacity).

Unsafe Condition is operating a vessel in a condition that causes danger to the occupants or others on the waterways. Law enforcement officers may instruct the operator to take immediate corrective action or terminate the voyage if any of the following “unsafe conditions” exist:

  • Inadequate number of PFDs or fire extinguishers
  • Overloading (check capacity plate information)
  • Failure to display navigation lights after sunset
  • Fuel leakage or excessive fuel accumulation in the bilges or the engine compartment
  • Lack of proper ventilation of engine spaces
  • Failure to meet carburetor backfire flame arrestor requirements
  • Excessive leakage or accumulation of water in the bilge
Boaters riding on the bow
It is illegal to ride on the bow or gunwales while the boat is moving.