The law surrounding the use of small boats on navigable waters is governed
mainly by the traditional body of admiralty law. Admiralty law encompasses
ancient maritime law concepts of limitation of liability, maritime liens,
in rem actions, and the like.
The increase in pleasure boating and the consequent demand on United
States Coast Guard facilities for inspection and licensing has resulted
in a delegation to the states and, in some instances, to counties and municipalities
within states, of some responsibility and authority in this area. In addition
to this legislative delegation of authority, admiralty jurisdiction in
the United States has traditionally been extended in part to state courts.
By having such concurrent state and federal jurisdiction, a plaintiff often
may have the option to proceed under either state or admiralty law. Other
issues, such as boat sales and storage agreements, will be determined under
common law principles of contract law.
Boat definitions vary by state. The following is an example of one's states definitions dealing with watercraft:
"A watercraft is defined as:
- (1) A vessel operated by machinery either permanently or temporarily affixed;
- (2) A sailboat other than a sailboard;
- (3) An inflatable, manually propelled boat that is required by federal law to have a hull identification number meeting the requirements of the United States coast guard;
- (1) "Vessel" includes every description of craft, including nondisplacement craft and seaplanes, designed to be used as a means of transportation on water.
- (2) "Rowboat" means any vessel, except a canoe, that is designed to be rowed and that is propelled by human muscular effort by oars or paddles and upon which no mechanical propulsion device, electric motor, internal combustion engine, or sail has been affixed or is used for the operation of the vessel.
- (3) "Sailboat" means any vessel, equipped with mast and sails, dependent upon the wind to propel it in the normal course of operation.
- (a) Any sailboat equipped with an inboard engine is deemed a powercraft
with auxiliary sail.
- (b) Any sailboat equipped with a detachable motor is deemed a sailboat
with auxiliary power.
- (c) Any sailboat being propelled by mechanical power, whether under
sail or not, is deemed a powercraft and subject to all laws and rules governing
- (4) "Powercraft" means any vessel propelled by machinery, fuel, rockets,
or similar device."