Definition of Navigable or Federal Waters of the United States

Have you ever read the description pertaining to registering a boat in Washington State? How about where it says that the boat does not need to be registered IF it is less than 16′ in length, has a motor of less than 10hp AND used in Non-Federal Waters. What does this actually mean? Just try and find the legal description of Non-Federal Waters, even using internet searches. It is there, but so buried that you will probably get a computer virus before you find it. And when you do get the information is so convoluted that you then need a lot of charts that are not readily publicly available. This is because it can spell out a river that is Federal Waters up to a River Mile location. Just how many charts have you seen that specify this?

Or if you have a sailboat and want to use a inflatable dingy with it, do you need to license the dingy?

Therefore somewhere comes in the need for the definition of navigable waters.

I recently gave my 19 year old grandson a 10′ fiberglass Tri-Hull with a old 6hp Johnson outboard. What waters could he legally launch the boat in without registering it? Then my neighbor who owns a 34′ sailboat with an inflatable raft and has recently acquired is fathers old 15HP outboard. What rules does he need to know? Hence the search for this article.

Now with all the “Boating Safety Inspections” being carried on by the local Sheriffs dept., WDFW, State Parks, even if you were right, it is rather hard trying to argue with a possible misinformed officer packing a Glock on his hip and has a ticket book in his off hand, when you do not have the proof in your pocket.

Here is the link to the description of Federal Navigable Waters of the US.

Another link to Title 33: Navigation and Navigable Waters

If you are not confused by now, you soon will be.


Info on a Recreational Style Boat in Washington State :                           


What Boat to Register:

Any boat or other water vessel that is 16 feet or longer, has a motor larger than 10 horsepower, or is used on federal waters.

What Boat Not to Register

Non-motorized canoes

Non-motorized kayaks

Non-motorized rowboats


So, any of you who will be using a small boat under 16′ and having a motor under 10 HP, even though you are exempt in CERTAIN WATERS, it will behoove you to register it anyway, and to have the current numbers on the hull which will increase your fishing time if you encounter a patrol boat who are “JUST DOING THEiR JOB”.

By and large .. most any waterway that ever has, or ever could be used for commerce (to include moving a log or canoe, punt or frontier era craft for commerce), even if it is now silted in, the channel has moved or is totally overgrown with vegetation, still qualifies as Federally Navigable……… Unless it is totally landlocked, but then again !!!!!!


Info on a Tender Dingy Style Boat :

Tender and Toy Registration Mandatory in U.S. Waters May 1st 09

By Kelly Sanford


Just about every other country in the world regards a yacht’s complement of watercraft as possessions of the mothership. Commonly denoted with a simple “T/T,” the tenders and toys of most foreign-flagged boats do not require separate cruising permits or registration numbers, making life blissfully simple…at least until you enter the States.

The U.S. Coast Guard website warns, “Documentation of your vessel does not cover the vessel’s tender or dinghy. These craft fall within the jurisdiction of the motorboat numbering laws of the state of principal use.”

Regardless of your yacht’s flag and your cruising permit, tenders and toys must be registered with the STATE AGENCY in the area of principal use once you have entered U.S. waters. Though your home port might consider your tender complement an extension of the yacht, within U.S. waters, the only vessels recognized as tenders and authorized for operation without a separate registration are those used for emergency evacuation only.

As Lisa Borkowski, president of ASAP Marine Documentation and Registration, says, “If you are riding around in U.S. waters in an unregistered boat marked strictly as a ‘tender-to,’ then the mothership had better be sinking.”

“The typical excuse we get is that the tender is registered under the main boat. But that (registration) does not include tenders or water toys,” officials say. Though it may be tempting to shrug off registering each and every one of the boat’s tenders and toys for a single season in the U.S., you should completely understand the repercussions of doing so.

The penalty is severe if you operate in some state’s waters like Florida for 30 days without proper documentation. If you’re caught operating a vessel that remains unregistered after 30 days, regardless of the flag, you can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor.

That’s right, a crime. This means that the problem is not the owner’s, it’s the operator’s…that’s you, skipper, or possibly one of your crew or guests. If you’re charged with the crime, it appears on your license and can adversely affect your ticket and your future in the industry.

And just because you manage to register your tenders and water toys doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. “You have to carry the documentation with you,” Waters says, “even if that means folding up the paperwork and putting it into some sort of key ring device so that it stays with the vessel at all times.” Even the PWC. “We just want to make things easier so there are no misunderstandings,” Waters says.

To avoid complications, register tenders and toys at the local department of motor vehicles or use a service like ASAP Marine Documentation and Registration to handle those details for you.

“This is not a major ordeal,” says Borkowski. “Once I have all the paperwork and information it only takes a few days and will only cost on average about $150.00 per vessel, depending on the vessel’s length and duration of the registration.”

Of course, use-taxes may also come into play and will be contingent upon your area of principal use. However, if the thought has crossed your mind that registering the tenders and toys for a short stay in the U.S. might be more bother than it’s worth, keep them dry on deck or think again.

For more information, visit or stop by your local DMV. And to make matters worse, each state can be totally different.


One interpretation as a general rule, the above is if you only row the dingy, then put “T.T. MyBoat”, or add a dash-1 after the registration numbers as “WN 1234 ZZ -1” as a number, you are OK without registration. However if you add a motor of any kind, (even electric) then you can only go from the anchored ship to shore, NO sight seeing.




Link to Title 33: Navigation and Navigable Waters

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