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SPD Home / Police Work / Harbor Patrol / Boating Safety


Towing a Boat

Harbor Patrol rescuing a sinking boat.

All vessels operating on federally regulated waters, including those in the City of Seattle, shall be in compliance with all Federal, State and local equipment requirements.

More Information:
U.S. Coast Guard - Boating Safety
Washington State Parks - Boating Information


All vessels operating on federally regulated waters, including those in the City of Seattle, shall be in compliance with all Federal, State and local equipment requirements.

Speed Limits (16.20.130)

7 Knots
In all the following bodies of water:

  • Lake Union
  • Salmon Bay
  • Union Bay
  • Portage Bay
  • Lake Washington Ship Canal
  • Within 100 yards of any shoreline, pier, restricted area or shore installation in:
    • a.Lake Washington
    • b.Lake Washington Ship Canal
      Adjacent waters east of the entrance buoys at Shilshole Bay to 100 yards east of Webster Point light entering Lake.
  • Within 200 yards of any shoreline, pier, restricted area or shore installation in all other waters of the City (Puget Sound, Elliott Bay, etc.)


Harbor Patrol Guide


4 Knots
Western end of the west guide pier of the Locks to the eastern end of the east guide pier at the Locks.

3 Knots

  • Andrews Bay
  • Rainier Boat Launch
  • Inside the breakwater at Shilshole Bay Marina.
  • Elliott Bay Marina
  • Any established marina
  • Any established boat moorage area



The use of the speed test area shall be subject to the following limits.

  • To be used during daylight hours only.
  • In no event shall any vessel or water sport craft operate at a speed in excess of 7 knots in said area immediately prior to making a U-turn.
  • No vessel or water sports craft shall enter the speed test area and exceed the 7-knot limit if any other vessel or water sport craft in presently using the speed test area at a speed in excess of 7 knots.
  • No vessel or water sports craft shall make more than 4 runs in or across the speed test area during a two-hour period.
  • The speed test area is intended for brief and limited use and shall be used ONLY for vessel testing by individuals maintaining or selling vessels.


Life Jackets (SMC 16.20.030; WAC 352-60-030)

No person shall operate or permit the operation of a vessel on the waters of the state unless the vessel has on board United States Coast Guard approved personal flotation devices as follows:

  1. Vessels less than sixteen feet (4.9 meters) in length, and canoes and kayaks of any length, must have one Type I, II, or III PFD of the proper size for each person on board.
  2. Vessels sixteen feet (4.9 meters) or more in length, except a canoe or kayak, must have one Type I, II, or III wearable PFD of the proper size for each person on board and, in addition, one Type IV throwable PFD.
  3. Alternate PFD requirement. A United States Coast Guard approved Type V PFD may be carried in lieu of any required PFD under this section if it is approved for the activity in which the vessel is engaged in and used in compliance with requirements on the approval label. A Type V PFD must be worn at all times.
  4. Stowage and condition. All personal flotation devices required by this section shall be readily accessible to all persons on board and be in good and serviceable condition. All devices shall be approved by the United States Coast Guard and marked in compliance with Coast Guard standards.
  5. Exemptions. Racing shells, rowing sculls and racing kayaks are exempt from the requirements of this section provided they are manually propelled, recognized by a national or international racing association, and designed solely for competitive racing.

Children Children 12 and under (as of July 25th, 1999) are required to wear U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets in Washington State when in a vessel less than 19 feet and underway, unless in a fully enclosed area.

Personal Watercraft All persons on, or being towed by, a PWC must wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)


Washington Title and Registering (SMC 16.20.200)

  • You must have a Washington title, registration and registration decals to navigate, operate, employ or moor a vessel on Washington waters. Exceptions are:
    • Vessels not propelled by a motor or sail (canoes, kayaks, etc.)
    • Vessels less than 16 feet in length with a motor of 10 horsepower or less if used only on non-federal waters, or without motor if used on federal waters.
    • Properly registered vessels owned by residents of another state or country and using
    Washington waters for 60 or fewer days.
  • Registration card must be onboard vessel and ready for inspection.
  • Registration numbers must be painted, decaled or otherwise affixed to the forward half of each side of the vessel, placed to be clearly visible.
  • Numbers must read from left to right on both sides of the vessel.
  • Numbers must be in at least 3-inch-high, bold, vertical BLOCK characters.
  • The color of the numbers must contrast with the background.
  • Letters must be separated from the numbers by a space or hyphen.
  • No other numbers may be displayed on either side of the bow.
  • Decals must be affixed on each side of the vessel, toward the stern of the registration number and in line with the number.
(SMC 16.20.030)

If your vessel requires registration, it is illegal to operate or allow others to operate your vessel unless it is properly registered and numbered.

Sailboats Under 16 Ft
With Motor
Sailboats Under 16 Ft
Without Motor
Sailboats 16 Ft and Over
With Motor
Sailboats 16 Ft and Over
Without Motor
Human Powered
Any Length


Motorized Vessels under 16 Ft NO YES*
Motorized Vessels
16 Ft and Over
Documented Vessels YES** REG ONLY

Personal property tax applies to most commercial boats.
NO, if 10 horsepower or less when used only on non-federally regulated waters.
** Unless vessel qualifies for exemptions.

Lake Washington, Union Bay, Portage Bay, Lake Union, Salmon Bay are all considered Federally regulated waters because of the Government Locks which allows access to Puget Sound.


Your county auditor or vehicle licensing subagent office

Department of Licensing
Vessel Licensing
PO Box 9909
Olympia, Wa 98507-8500

Other Registration Facts

Vessel registration is valid through Jun 30. It must be renewed beginning July 1 of each year. All vessels that require registration must also be titled. DOL must be notified within 15 days of:

  • Vessel is abandoned
  • Vessel is destroyed
  • Vessel is lost or stolen
  • The owner address changes or
  • The registered card is lost or destroyed

DOL must be notified in writing within 5 business days of the date of sale or transfer of the vessel.

Larger recreational vessels, owned by U.S. citizens, may be documented by the U.S. Coast Guard. Call the USCG at 1-800-799-8362. Documented vessels must also be registered in Washington, but not required to display the registration number.


Fire Extinguishers (SMC 16.20.030; WAC 352-60-080)

Fire extinguishers are required on vessels when the following conditions exist:

  • Inboard engine
  • Vessel length of 26 ft or longer
  • Closed compartments where portable fuel tanks may be stored
  • Double-bottom not sealed to the hull or which are not completely filled with flotation material
  • Closed living spaces
  • Closed storage compartments in which flammable or combustible materials may be stored
  • Permanently installed fuel tanks


  • Violations of the restrictions below can expect a quick and stern response.
  • DO NOT approach within 100 yards, and slow to minimum speed within 500 yards of any U.S. Navy vessel.
  • If you need to pass within 100 yards of a U.S. Navy vessel for safe passage, you must contact the U.S. Navy vessel or the Coast Guard escort vessel on VHF-FM channel 16.
  • Observe and avoid all security zones. Seattle has a security zone at Todd Shipyard whenever a U.S. Navy vessel is in port. The 100-yard exclusion zone is enforced and you must slow to minimum speed within 500 yards.
  • Avoid commercial port areas, especially those that involve military, Washington DOT ferry terminals, cruise line or petroleum facilities.
  • DO NOT stop or anchor beneath bridges or in channels.


The operator of a vessel involved in a boating accident, or the owner of the vessel reporting for the operator, must complete and submit a written boating accident report if:

  • A person dies or disappears from the vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury.
  • A person is injured and requires medical treatment beyond first aid.
  • Damage to the vessel(s) or other property exceeds $2,000.00 or there is complete loss of a vessel.

The boating accident report must be submitted to the Seattle Harbor Patrol within 48 hours of the accident if:

  • A person dies within 24 hours of the accident, or
  • A person is injured and requires medical treatment beyond first aid, or
  • A person disappears from a vessel,
  • Within 10 days for all other accidents.


Enforcement (SMC 16.64.010)

Seattle Harbor Patrol, Washington State Park Rangers, Fish & Wildlife Agents, City Police Officers, Deputy Sheriffs and all other officers with law enforcement authorities enforce the boating laws of Washington. The U.S. Coast Guard has enforcement authority on federally controlled waters. Lake Washington, Portage Bay, Lake Union, Salmon Bay and all connecting waters are considered federally controlled.

Officers have the authority to stop and board your vessel and direct it to a suitable pier or anchorage in order to check for compliance with state and federal laws.


  • Every person onboard a PWC must wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD.
  • If the PWC is equipped with an ignition safety switch, the lanyard must be attached to the person, clothing, or PFD of the operator.
  • PWC may be operated only during the hours between sunrise and sunset.
  • You must be 14 years of age to legally operate a personal watercraft.
  • A working fire extinguisher is required.
  • PWC must be registered with the State of Washington with properly displayed "WN" numbers.


  • It is illegal to discharge oil or hazardous substances.
  • You are not allowed to dump oil into the bilge of the vessel without means for proper disposal.
  • You must discharge oil waste to a reception facility.
  • On Federally controlled waters, vessels 26ft or longer must display a 5 x 8 inch placard near the bilge pump switch stating the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.

If your vessel discharges oil or hazardous substances in the water, immediately:

Contact the US Coast Guard
206-217-6230 or 1-800-424-8802

Notify the Washington Department of Ecology


The Locks

Equipment required to lock through:

  • Two or more 50 foot manila or other suitable mooring lines.
  • Fire Extinguishing Equipment.
  • Personal Floatation Devices.
  • Fenders for both sides of vessel.

Who Goes First?

1st: Government Vessels (Federal, State, City)
2nd: Commercial Passenger Vessels on Scheduled Trips
3rd: Freighters, Fishing Vessels and Tow Boats (with or without scows)
4th: Recreational Pleasure Craft
5th: Log Rafts

If you draw more than 14ft, signal the Lockmaster so that the saltwater barrier can be lowered. Signal with one long and two short blasts. When the flashing yellow light goes out, the saltwater barrier will be in the lowered position.


The Burlington Northern Bridge:43ft
**Ballard Bridge:45ft
**Fremont Bridge:30ft
**University Bridge:44ft
***Montlake Bridge:46ft
*Evergreen Point Bridge (East)54ft
Evergreen Point Bridge (West)45ft
Mercer Island Bridge (East)35ft
Mercer Island Bridge (West)35ft

* Call 206-440-4490 1- ½ hours before arriving to open Evergreen Point Center Span 24 hrs/day.

** Normal closed periods are 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. Call 206-386-4251 (or marine ch. 13) 1 hour before arriving to open bridge between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

*** Closed weekdays between 7-9 a.m. and 3:30-6:00 p.m. Scheduled openings on weekdays are on the hour and half-hour between 12:30-3:30pm. No scheduled closures on weekends or national holidays. Call 206-386-4251 (or VHF ch. 13) 1 hour before arrival to open bridge between 11p.m. and 7 a.m.

Channel 13 is for use in emergencies and by commercial vessels only.


Short-term anchorage is approved in Andrews Bay on Lake Washington. The approved area is defined by two buoys marked with "A" indicating the northwest and southwest corners of the anchorage zone. Shore markers note the northeast and southeast corners. Anchorage is limited ONLY to this area.

A 72-hour maximum stay within any seven-day period is permitted.

Lakewood Moorage, located northwest of the anchorage area, has a small store with marine supplies and snacks.

This area has a maximum speed of 3 knots noted by buoys. The City of Seattle has established a 7 Knot speed limit in other areas within 100 yards from shorelines, piers, fixed structures and restricted areas.

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