Alcohol and Boating Rules: Stay Safe This Christmas

Boating Rules

With the Christmas holidays and summer months fast approaching, you’re likely itching to get out on the water and enjoy the freedom of the open ocean. To ensure you have a fun and safe time, here’s an overview of the NSW boating laws in relation to boating under the influence.

Boating rules overview

Operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol and drugs is an offence. By law, a ‘vessel’ includes canoes and kayaks, through to sailing craft of all shapes and sizes and all powered vessels – which includes personal watercraft.

A random breath test (RBT) or random drug test (RDT) may be conducted at any time while the vessel is underway or drifting. This applies to all operators of the vessel, including:

  • Anyone steering or exercising control over the course or direction of a vessel
  • The observer in a ski boat or personal watercraft
  • A person being towed by a vessel
  • A person supervising the operator of a vessel under 16 years of age.

RBT and RDT do not apply when a vessel is moored, berthed or at anchor, however it’s advisable to appoint a designated driver to remain under the legal limit while out on the water, in case the vessel needs to be moved or there is a problem.

Permissible concentration of alcohol limits

  • 0.00 for all vessel operators under 18 years
  • Less than 0.02 for commercial vessel operators over 18 years
  • Less than 0.05 for recreational vessel operators over 18 years

Although the limits are similar to driving a car, it is important to note that the boating environment can multiply the effects of alcohol. The waves, motion, vibration and weather can cause your coordination, judgement, vision, balance and reaction time to decline up to three times faster when consuming alcohol.

So, do not assume that what you would usually drink on land can automatically be applied to boating; the way you’re affected could be very different.


If the breath test detects levels in excess of the permissible concentration, NSW Police may issue you with a court attendance notice.

A PCA (prescribed concentration of alcohol) offence may result in a loss of license, fines up to $5,500 and/or imprisonment.

The following table outlines the penalties you could incur:

Anti-social behaviour

People who use a vessel in a dangerous, intimidating or threatening way or who drive with excessive speed on the waterways may be fined or prosecuted, as part of legislation introduced in October 2016. In these circumstances, the vessel may be impounded or forfeited for a period of three months. The owner may have to pay costs associated with seizing and storing the vessel before it can be returned.

It is always the responsibility of the owner to ensure the vessel is being operated correctly, regardless of who is operating the vessel at the time of the offence. 

The vessel can be seized or forfeited on the second anti-social offence within a five year period, even if the two offences were committed by different operators and neither one was the owner.

So, it’s important to always set strict guidelines when allowing your vessel to be operated by someone else, and ensure they are aware of the consequences and penalties should they commit an offence.

For further information and full details of the NSW boating rules, please refer to the RMS Boating Handbook.

The above is general in nature and is not intended as legal advice. You should obtain legal advice in relation to your own specific circumstances.



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