An Official Website of the Commonwealth of Kentucky
This publication provides basic information for most boaters and answers the most commonly asked questions. However, it is not all-inclusive. For further information, please get in touch with the Division of Law Enforcement, #1 Sportsman’s Lane, Frankfort, KY 40601 or call 1-800-858-1549.
For emergencies, officers may be contacted by dialing 1-800-252-5378, or local law enforcement agency or through the nearest Kentucky State Police post. One may use marine channel 16 to contact a local marina.
All mechanically powered vessels used primarily in this state must have a Kentucky registration. Boats are registered at the county clerk’s office. Persons may register in the county of their residence or the county of principal use. Boat registrations expire on April 30 each year.
Boats registered in other states may be used for up to 60 consecutive days in Kentucky without registering here.
All boats operated in Kentucky must have the registration certificate on board. Boats that are rented from a marina or boat livery must have a lease agreement on board.
Kentucky boaters on the Ohio River may also be subject to the laws of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Once boats are assigned a registration number and decals, they must be displayed correctly. The number assigned, and no other, shall be displayed on the bow, or forward half, of each side of the vessel, read from left to right and in a position to be distinctly visible. The letters and numbers must be of a plain block design, at least three (3) inches in height, and of a color that will provide maximum contrast to the background (light numbers on a dark hull or vice versa).
There must be a letter size space between letter and number groups:
Correct: KY 1234 AAIncorrect: KY1234AA
Registration decals are to be placed within six inches behind (aft) and in line with the registration number. Upon renewal every year, old registration decals are to be removed, and the current ones applied.
When ownership of a currently registered boat changes, it is the responsibility of the purchaser to take the endorsed title to the county clerk and have the boat transferred into the name of the new owner. This procedure must be done upon completion of the transaction.
Whenever a vessel is transferred, the seller shall, within 15 days, give the county clerk notice of the transfer of his interest in the vessel.
Whenever a vessel is destroyed or abandoned, the owner shall, within 15 days, give notice to the county clerk to terminate the registration. The owner shall remove the numbers and decals from the vessel.
(SEE: 301 KAR 1:012,
1:015) Maximum horsepower limits and other boat motor and lake usage regulations apply on many small public fishing lakes. (For boat size limits, see the "ON ALL KENTUCKY..." box on this page.)
Legal-size boats exceeding the maximum horsepower restriction for a particular lake may operate their boat with an electric trolling motor only.
Operation of electric or internal combustion motors prohibited: Lake Chumley, Dennie Gooch Lake and
Kingdom Come Lake.
Operation of internal combustion motors prohibited: Bert T. Combs Lake,
Carter Caves State Park Lake (a.k.a. Smoke Valley Lake),
Lebanon City Lake (a.k.a. Fagan Branch Lake),
Fishpond Lake, all Kentucky River WMA Boone Tract lakes (except
Benjy Kinman Lake),
Lincoln Homestead State Park Lake,
Marion County Lake,
Martin County Lake,
Metcalfe County Lake, Mauzy Lake,
Mill Creek Lake,
Washburn Lake and
Pikeville City Lake.
Motors larger than 10 HP must operate at idle speed at all times: Beaver Lake,
Bullock Pen Lake,
Elmer Davis Lake,
Shanty Hollow Lake,
Cranks Creek (Herb Smith) Lake and
Martins Fork Lake.
Idle Speed Only:Ballard WMA lakes,
Benjy Kinman Lake,
Boatwright WMA lakes,
Pan Bowl Lake,
Wilgreen Lake and all
Peabody WMA lakes, including Goose, Island and South.
A person must be 12 years or older to operate a motorboat (including personal watercraft) with 10 horsepower or over on Kentucky public waters. A person 12-17 years old shall possess a Kentucky Safe Boating Certificate Card or a certificate showing successful completion of a NASBLA-approved boater education course. For information about Kentucky’s Boater Education program, call 1-800-858-1549 or the Boater Education page. Persons under 12 years of age must wear a personal floatation device (lifejacket) while in the open portion of a boat that is underway.
While this section is titled waterskiing, it applies to persons being towed on any device, such as kneeboards, inner tubes, etc. Water skiing is only allowed between sunrise and sunset. Additionally, it is illegal to manipulate skis, surfboards, etc., while intoxicated or under the influence of any other substance that impairs one’s operating ability.
Both the operator and skier should be alert to the areas of a lake or river marked as “no ski.” Persons shall not ski within 100 feet of a commercial boat dock, a moorage harbor, a swimming area, or within 2,000 feet of a lock or dam.
Skiers who ski too close to other boats, docks and obstructions are showing poor judgment. Many of the complaints officers receive while patrolling the water are those about skiers skiing too close.
Persons being towed on any device must wear a Type I, II or III PFD. Boats (including personal watercraft) towing skiers must have, in addition to the operator of the boat, an observer 12 years of age or older or a wide angle rearview mirror mounted so that the operator can check on the skier but still give full attention to traffic ahead. There must be adequate seating for all riders.
Boats towing kites and similar airborne devices must:
The term “personal watercraft” (PWC) means a vessel that uses an internal combustion engine to power a jet pump for its primary source of propulsion and is designed to be operated by a person sitting, standing or kneeling on the vessel rather than by a person sitting or standing inside the vessel. In addition to being governed by the same laws that apply to all boats, the following laws apply to personal watercraft:
Because of their small size and low profile, operators of PWCs should exercise defensive driving. These crafts are highly responsive and capable of quick turns. In fact, this is part of the fun of their operation. However, this kind of operation is reckless if done in congested areas of boat traffic.
Water-skiing permitted as designated by signs on Guist Creek Lake and Lake Beshear from 10:00 a.m. to sunset beginning the third Thursday in May (May 16, 2024) through September 30. Similarly, water-skiing is permitted on Lake Malone beginning the third Thursday in May (May 16, 2024) through October 31. Water-skiing and tubing are prohibited on Cedar Creek Lake.
(SEE: 301 KAR 1:410,
Skin or SCUBA diving is prohibited in all lakes owned or managed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, except during emergencies,
on Greenbo Lake, and during salvage operations when the diver has written permission from the regional director or local wildlife and boating law enforcement officer assigned to the specific body of water in which the diving is to take place.
Persons diving or submerging with the aid of a mechanical breathing apparatus in an area where boats might be are required by law to display the diver’s flag.
This flag should be put on a buoy, boat or other floating platform so boaters will readily see it. Approaching boats must stay outside of a 100-foot radius of the flag. Divers must surface within a 50-foot radius unless there is an emergency.
Divers shall not dive in established traffic lanes nor interfere with anyone fishing unless emergency operations are in progress.
Swimming in any lake owned or managed by the KDFWR is prohibited except in areas specifically set aside for swimming at which a qualified lifeguard is on duty. Kentucky law specifically prohibits swimming at any boat launching ramp. Swim in marked and supervised areas. If you are a non-swimmer or a poor swimmer, wear a PFD. Remember, PFDs are not just for boaters.
Refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages when swimming. Alcohol greatly reduces a person’s reflexes and strength when in the water. For persons who have had alcoholic beverages, a PFD is a difference between life and death.
Persons who wish to swim a long distance should swim parallel to the shore instead of across a river or lake. Boaters don’t normally expect to see swimmers in the middle of a lake or river and may run over them.
Alpha Flag (Left): Blue with a Silver Stripe, displayed on a vessel with Restricted mobility because of the diving operation.
Diver's Flag (Right): Red Flag at least 12" x 12" with a diagonal stripe at least three inches wide, displayed where the diver is submerged.
Air mattresses, inner tubes and other similar devices are generally used as recreational items by persons swimming or sunbathing. Use of these items should be restricted to designated or generally recognized swimming areas and not be used in areas of boat traffic. Non-swimmers or poor swimmers should not depend on these devices to save their life. These items can be punctured and lose their buoyancy – wear a PFD!
(SEE: KRS 433.757)
The operator of any motorboat or vessel is responsible for any litter thrown into the water. Litter is not only unsightly but can be dangerous to humans and animals. For example, fishing lines discarded into the water can be hazardous to wildlife and to a boat’s lower unit. Animals can be ensnared in the line and die. A fishing line caught on a prop shaft can cause seal leaks and lower unit failure. Trotlines and limb lines can snare animals and other anglers in boats.
The operator of a watercraft is responsible for damage caused by negligent operation. The following actions are considered reckless operations and are therefore against the law:
Persons shall not operate a motorboat or personal watercraft within 50 feet of a commercial vessel and its tow that is in operation on a waterway except if the operator of the commercial vessel has given consent.
When operating in a busy area, reduce speed and allow plenty of room for avoidance maneuvers. Even in areas that are not marked as idle speed, the excessive wake can still be dangerous. Operators of larger craft should be aware of the wake their vessels are throwing.
Kentucky law defines idle speed as the “slowest speed possible to maintain maneuverability” of a boat. Generally speaking, for a properly adjusted boat, this is the speed at which a boat is put into gear without advancing the throttle. Wakes can capsize small boats or cause damage to boats moored at marinas and docks. It is extremely important that boat operators be aware of their speed and the resulting wake. Operators are liable for any injuries or damage caused by their boat’s wake.
Boaters may see buoys or signs that say “No Wake.” This means that boats must be at idle speed.
Boaters in Kentucky may encounter lock and dam systems. Generally, these will be on the Green, Ohio and Kentucky Rivers (for the first four locks upstream to Frankfort, KY), but a few impoundments have a lock and dam. Locks are a relatively simple method of raising or lowering boats from one water level to another. If lockage is desired, boaters should signal the lock operator by using the pull chain on each end of the lock or call on marine channel 13. If the lock is not immediately available, boaters should position their vessels a safe distance from the approach channel to avoid personal injury or damage to their boat from wakes caused by commercial tows entering or leaving the locks. Never moor a vessel in the lock approach channels.
Low-head dams are usually marked with “keep out” buoys or “danger” signs above and below. Low-head dams pose an even greater danger due to the fact that they are not as recognizable, especially when water is flowing over them. This flow of water over the dam creates a “boil” on the lower side. Boaters risk almost certain death if caught in this turbulence.
Boaters should be alert for these structures. Dams are either conventional or "low head" type. Conventional dams are easily recognizable with their spillways and power installations.
(SEE:301 KAR 6:030)
Kentucky law prohibits boats from operating within restricted areas as posted above or below the navigation, power generating, or flood control dams.
No fish is worth risking your life. Be aware of trespassing and danger zones. Wear a PFD when entering any area above or below a dam.
(SEE: KRS 235.240)
It is against the law to operate a boat or vessel, including personal watercraft, manipulate water skis, surfboards, or other similar devices while intoxicated or under the influence of any other substance that impairs one’s driving ability. Any person who operates a vessel on Kentucky waters is considered to have given consent to a test or tests to determine his alcohol concentration or the presence of other drugs. The tests shall be administered at the direction of a law enforcement officer who has probable cause to believe that the operator is intoxicated. An operator refusing the test is in violation of the law and will be subject to the same penalties.
Anyone who operates a boat, PWC, skis, surfboard or similar device while intoxicated with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher or while under the influence of any substance that impairs the operator’s driving ability may be subject to fines and possible jail time if convicted.
Statistics show that approximately half the boat-related fatalities involve boats that are less than 16' in length. These boats are usually unstable and can tip over, throwing the occupants overboard. Also, these boats can be easily swamped, especially if used on a large body of water where the wind can cause high waves. When using such craft, be aware of the hazards. Wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) is strongly recommended.
(SEE: KRS 222.202)
Kentucky law specifically prohibits drinking alcoholic beverages in public places (this excludes establishments licensed to sell such beverages), and the waterways of this state are considered public places.
Further, in a public place, persons who are manifestly under the influence of alcoholic beverages to the extent that they may unreasonably annoy or endanger themselves or others shall be subject to arrest.
Approximately half of the boat-related fatalities result from falls overboard. When operating a motorboat above idle speed, the operator or passengers shall not ride on an enclosed bow, outside protective railing of a pontoon or houseboat, on a seat which extends six inches above the plane of the gunwales, nor shall they ride on the sides, back, engine cover, back of the seat, or any other obviously dangerous position which could lead to falling overboard.
Boats Keep Out!Nature of danger may be placed outside the crossed diamond, e.g., waterfalls, swim areas or rapids.
Danger!Nature of danger may be indicated inside the diamond shape, e.g., rocks, reefs, dams, construction or snags.
Caution!Controlled Areas as indicated in a circle, e.g., speed limit, no fishing, no anchoring, ski-only, slow-no wake, no ski or no prop boats.
InformationTells directions, distances, places such as food, repair, supplies and other non-regulatory messages.
ObstructionMarker Do not pass between shore and buoy.
Mooring BuoyWhite with reflective blue band. May have white light or reflector.
Channel MarkerKeep buoy on right facing upstream.
Channel MarkerKeep buoy on left facing upstream. Marker may be green or black.
On the water, no painted lines mark where boats must go. In order to provide an orderly flow of traffic, there are "rules of the road" that boaters should learn and practice.
Boaters on the water encounter three situations: meeting, crossing and overtaking. The following diagrams should clearly explain who has the right of way (stand-on vessel) and who must give way (give-way vessel). However, all vessels must give way to avoid a collision in an emergency. At night, a boat's navigation lights give an indication of the right of way (See: Navigation Lights Section.)
The above rules cover most traffic situations, but a few other situations exist. Sailboats under sail have the right of way except when they are the overtaking vessel. Rowboats and paddle-powered boats have the right of way over motorboats. All recreational craft should yield the right of way to large commercial craft (towboats, barges). Such vessels have large blind spots and will be unable to see smaller crafts in front of them. On small or narrow bodies of water, all traffic should stay to the right of mid-channel and not "cut corners."
Buoys are the most common type of navigational aid, and they serve the same purpose as traffic signs on the highway. Failure to obey buoys can result in enforcement action, or worse, a loss of property or lives.
Slow down when boating in unfamiliar waters and look for any regulatory or channel-marking buoys. Remember that it is possible for these buoys to drift out of position. Kentucky law prohibits tying up to any buoy except designated mooring buoys.
301 KAR 6:040 Sect. 4)
For each person onboard a vessel, federal as well as state law requires a Type I, II, or III personal flotation device (PFD) on all boats. Boats 16 feet and over, except canoes and kayaks, must also carry one Type IV throwable PFD. Operators and passengers of personal watercraft must wear a PFD. Persons under 12 years of age must wear a PFD while in the open part of a boat that is underway.
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife strongly recommends wearing PFDs while boating, especially by children and non-swimmers. In order for PFDs to be legal, the following requirements must be met:
Kentucky law requires that all boats equipped with a petroleum product (gasoline, kerosene, propane, etc.) consuming device (engines, lanterns, stoves, etc.) shall have a hand-portable fire extinguisher in serviceable condition and be located for immediate use. The best fire protection is well-maintained equipment and proper safety habits.
There are fuels other than gasoline that cause fires. Many houseboats use bottled gas (propane) for stoves and other appliances. Also, many fishermen will use a lantern while fishing at night; if tipped over, it can cause a fire.
Internal combustion engines may backfire. To safeguard against fire, all motorboats with enclosed engines and engines originally equipped with a flame arrester (except outboards and diesel) must have an approved carburetor backfire flame arrester system on each carburetor.
Most fires on a boat are due to the ignition of fuel vapors. Gasoline is heavier than air. It can collect in the bilge or engine compartment, and any spark can ignite it. Therefore, Kentucky law requires boats to have adequate ventilation in areas where flammable vapors can accumulate.
Most boats are equipped with adequate ventilation systems when they come from the factory. Usually, this is a combination of active and passive systems. Active systems use electrical blowers to exhaust flammable vapors from the bilge and other areas. Passive systems are ducts and cowls ventilating areas when the boat moves. Almost all inboards will have an electrical blower installed in the engine compartment. Operators should run the blower for several minutes before starting the engine. If the blower is inoperable, it should be repaired or replaced immediately. Many boat fires take place after refueling, so care should be taken to avoid spilling fuel in the vessel.
When underway between sunset and sunrise, all vessels must display proper navigation lights. Navigation lights on boats are restricted to the colors red, green and white.
From sunset to sunrise in an area where other boats navigate, all vessels at anchor shall display a steady white light visible 360 degrees at all times. Manually propelled vessels shall carry a white light to display in sufficient time to avoid a collision.
The red and green navigation lights at night are used to show if your boat is in a meeting, crossing or overtaking situation. The red and green lights must be displayed from sunset to sunrise whenever a boat is underway. They will give some indication of the size and speed of vessels. The red and green bow lights are especially helpful in determining the right of way in crossing situations. In the second diagram to the right, boat B sees the green bow light of boat A and has the right of way to continue on course. Boat A sees the red bow light of boat B and must stop or pass the stern of boat B. In special circumstances, such as towing, refer to
33 CFR 83 (Inland Navigation Rules).
Kentucky law states that all boats 16 feet in length or longer must have a hand-, mouth- or power-operated signaling device capable of producing a blast for two seconds or more and audible for a one-half mile for class 1 vessels, one mile for class two vessels and one and one-half miles for class three vessels. This does not exempt vessels from any other signaling device as may be required by federal law when operating on navigable waters of this state.
Navigation law also requires the following maneuvering and warning signals:
Kentucky law requires all boats to be equipped with effective exhaust muffling devices. Usually, boats and motors that come direct from the manufacturer are adequately muffled. However, there may be instances of high-performance boats that have been modified by the owners that are not in compliance with the law. Additionally, federal and/or local regulations may restrict boats with an over-the-transom exhaust system.
(SEE: KRS 235:420)
Motorboats with marine toilets are not allowed on public waters unless the toilet is equipped with a Type I, II, or III marine sanitation device (MSD.) Type I and II MSDs chemically treat sewage. Type III MSDs are holding tanks for raw sewage.
Raw sewage shall not be discharged into any public waters. Treated sewage may be discharged into legal “discharge” waters from a marine toilet. Those waters are Barkley and Kentucky lakes, Lake Cumberland and any of the major river systems. Type I and II MSDs must be sealed or locked while the vessel is on “no discharge” waters.
(301 KAR 6:030,
If any of the following conditions occur as the result of a boating accident, collision, etc., a Boating Accident Report must be made:
The operator of a vessel is required to complete the report. If the operator is not capable of filing the report and is not the owner of the vessel, then the owner shall be required to fill out a boating accident report.
Note 1: Even if a Law Enforcement Officer fills out a boating accident report, this does not exempt the operator from filing a report.
Note 2: The reports filed by vessel operators are confidential and not available as a public record (KRS 235.250). However, reports made by officers are available for review.
Accidents involving death or serious injury must be submitted to the Division of Law Enforcement within 48 hours. All others must be submitted within five days.
Boating accident report forms are available from wildlife and boating law enforcement officers or by writing to Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Division of Law Enforcement, #1 Sportsman’s Lane, Frankfort, KY 40601, by calling 1-800-858-1549 or
An operator of a vessel involved in a boating accident shall render aid to other persons and vessels as long as it doesn’t endanger his crew, passengers or vessel. Also, the operator of any vessel involved in an accident shall give his name, address, and identification of his vessel, in writing, to any person injured or to the owner of any damaged property.
This section includes suggestions that may save a life. First, boats should be equipped with a first aid kit. This kit should be able to provide treatment for burns, insect bites, cuts and abrasions.
Second, boaters should take a first aid course to know how to treat victims with sprains, broken bones and shock.
Third, boaters should know how to perform Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) if they encounter near-drowning victims, heart attacks or trauma from boating accidents. In many cases, emergency medical help is further away on the water than on land. Interested persons should contact their local chapter of the American Red Cross for information on first aid and CPR training.
Four elements cause hypothermia – cold, moisture, wind and exhaustion. Symptoms of hypothermia are uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech, stumbling, blue skin, decreased heart and breathing rate, weak pulse and unconsciousness.
All hypothermia symptoms demand immediate attention. As soon as possible, a victim of hypothermia should be brought out of the weather. Wet clothing should be replaced with dry clothing. If the victim shows mild symptoms, get them near a fire or other heat source or put them in a warm sleeping bag. For victims with advanced symptoms of hypothermia, seek immediate medical attention. Never give alcohol to the victim.
The best cure for hypothermia is prevention. Monitor weather reports when you plan to be outdoors. Dress in layers and always have foul-weather gear handy.
Boaters should be aware of the factors that induce fatigue while on the water. The wind, sun, engine noise and constant motion of the boat can greatly reduce a person’s reaction time.