Boating and Houseboat laws in Tennessee

If you live in the state of Tennessee or are planning on boating there then it is important to know the laws for the state. In this article I will break down some specific laws that Tennessee has for houseboats and boating in general. 

Obviously laws can change over time so be sure and talk to local officials to keep up on current boating laws in your specific area. 

Tennessee Boat Requirement Laws

  • There must be one life jacket on board your boat for every passenger on your boat. 
  • All of those life jackets must be easily accessible in the event of an emergency. 
  • The life jacket for each person must be the correct size for that person. You can’t have 20 children’s life jackets on board when you actually have 20 adult passengers. 
  • If your boat is 26 foot or longer you are required to have a fire extinguisher on board. 
  • If your boat is 26-40 feet long you must have 1 B-II or 2 B-I extinguishers. 
  • If your boat is 40-65 feet long you must have 1 B-II and 1 B-1 extinguishers or 3 B-I extinguishers. 
  • Boats built after July 31, 1980 that have closed engine compartments must be ventilated by a powered exhaust system. Boats built before that date must have one intake and one exhaust duct fitted with cowls. 
  • Boats over 12 meters (39 feet 4 inches) long are required to have a bell and a powered horn or whistle. Boats under that length are not required to have those but must have a way to make an “efficient sound signal”.
  • Your boat must have a sign stating that it is illegal to put plastic waste into the water or any waste that is mixed with plastic. The sign must also state that it is illegal to put any garbage in any inland water or coastal water within 3 miles of land. 
  • Your boat engine must have an effective muffling system. 
  • Your boat noise must not exceed 86 db at 50 feet away. 
  • All boats are required to have appropriate lighting if being used between sunset and sunrise or in inclement weather. The specific light requirements can be found here.
  • Specific boat equipment for different boat sizes can be found at the following link
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Tennessee Boat Safety Laws

  • Every child, twelve and under, is required to wear a coast guard approved life jacket while on an open deck of every boat unless the boat is aground, anchored, or moored.  
  • A life jacket must be worn by everyone on board if your boat is being used within specifically marked areas beneath a dam. 

Tennessee Boater Education Laws

  • Anyone born after January 1, 1989 must have a TWRA issued boater education card in their possession if they are operating the boat. 
  • Children under 12 years of age cannot operate any boat that is more than 8.5hp unless they have an adult who can take immediate control of the vessel at hand. 
  • If the adult is born after January 1, 1989, they must have a TWRA issued boater education card in their possession while watching the minor. 
  • Additional boater education information can be found here

Tennessee Boat Alcohol Laws

  • The boat operator cannot have a blood alcohol content of more than .08% to operate the boat legally. 
  • When piloting a boat you are giving consent to take a blood alcohol test if asked by an official. If you refuse a test you may have your boat operating privilege revoked for 6 months. 
  • If you are convicted of operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol you can receive a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 11 months and 29 days in jail. 

Tennessee Boat Operation Laws

  • Boats within 300 feet of a commercial dock must be traveling at a “no wake speed” (at or below idle speed”. 
  • You cannot drive your boat within 50m feet of a divers “down” flag and you must be traveling at “no wake” speed within 200 feet of the “down” flag. 
  • Reckless operation of your vessel is punishable by a $2,500 fine and 6 months in jail. The coast guard can impose additional penalties as well. 
  • Waterway navigation laws and signs can be found here.
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Tennessee Personal Watercraft Laws

  • Personal watercraft are considered boats and must follow the same laws as a normal boat. 
  • Anyone ages 12 and younger cannot operate a personal watercraft unless an adult is on board to take control if necessary. 
  • Jumping the wake within 100 feet of a boat is considered reckless driving. 
  • No one can operate a personal watercraft between sunset and sunrise. 
  • If you are using your personal watercraft to tow skiers your personal watercraft must have 2 mirrors or a person on board over the age of 12 to observe the skier. 
  • Anyone using a personal watercraft must wear a life jacket. 

Tennessee Water Skiing Laws

  • Any boat towing a skier must have a 170 degree wide angle mirror or have someone on board over the age of 12 to observe the skier. 
  • You cannot ski from sunset to sunrise.
  • You cannot ski near or in front of large boats. 
  • You cannot ski during inclement weather.
  • The skier must wear a life preserver, life belt, or buoyant vest. 

Some common questions that people ask about the boating laws in Tenessee are:

Can passengers drink on a boat in Tennessee?

Yes, passengers can drink while on board a boat in Tennessee. You are allowed to have open containers anywhere on your boat without any legal ramifications.

Just like with a car it is a good idea to have a designated driver for your boat. The boat driver is required to have a blood alcohol level of below .08% so make sure the driver doesn’t drink much or any at all.

Can you live on a boat in Tennessee?

Yes, you can live on board a boat in Tennessee as there are no state wide laws prohibiting living on board full time.

Cities and counties can restrict the number of people who are allowed to live aboard in a certain marina or charge fees so be sure and contact the local officials in the location where you are planning on living.

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What do you need to drive a boat in Tennessee?

In Tennessee, if you were born before January 1, 1989 you are not required to take a boater safety course or have any special license to pilot a boat. Anyone born after that date is required to take an approved boater safety course and must have proof of completion of the course with them when piloting the boat.

What is required on a boat in Tennessee?

The required safety equipment for a boat in Tennessee is:

  • Backfire Flame Arrestor
  • Certificate of Number (boat registration)
  • Daytime visual distress signals
  • Muffler
  • Navigation lights
  • Nighttime visual distress signals
  • Registration Number Displayed
  • Sound Signaling Device
  • Throwable personal flotation devices
  • Type B-I fire extinguisher
  • Validation Decals (proof your boat is registered)
  • Ventilation System
  • Wearable personal flotation devices (one per person on board)

What do you need to register a boat in Tennessee?

If you are looking to register your new boat in Tennessee you probably will want to know what is required to get your boat registered. What you will need to have or know is:

  • A bill of sale that includes the date of sale, price, description of the vessel, and the personal details of both the buyer and seller.
  • Certification that the sales tax was paid at time of purchase.
  • Boats built after 1972 are required to have a hull identification number.
  • Complete an Application for Boat Certificate of Number
  • The manufacture number
  • The boat’s length
  • The boat’s make
  • The boat’s year
  • The license fee

Matthew Robbs

I love the outdoors and especially spending time with my family. Whether on a boat or at the beach, my happy place is near the water.

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