Paddlers and vessel exclusion zones

Jim Greenhalgh


While exploring a mangrove estuary, a group of kayakers came upon a waterway marked with a buoy at the entrance. The white buoy had an orange diamond-shaped mark with a cross inside and black text reading “No Boats.” The group stopped, trying to decide whether the sign applied to them. After some discussion, they concluded that the buoy didn’t mean kayaks and paddled through the area. Later, the whole story, along with photos of the paddlers passing the buoy, was published in a local club periodical.

In another instance, a lone paddler returning to a beach took a shortcut through a line of buoys marked with the orange diamond/cross and labeled “No Vessels.” Having done this many times, he was surprised to see blue flashing lights off his beam and a marine deputy sheriff in a patrol boat ordering him to stop. Although the deputy could have issued a citation for unlawful operation, he decided to educate the paddler. The officer politely but firmly explained that kayaks are vessels and don’t belong in the exclusion area. He ordered the paddler to leave immediately.

Unfortunately, these incidents occur regularly. Since paddlers don’t see themselves as boaters, many rarely take boating safety courses and are not taught vessel safety laws in paddlesports training. Consequently, many don’t know what regulations apply to them and often post photos of their violations on social media.

U.S. vessel regulations

By law, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and other human-powered watercraft are considered “vessels.” The person controlling a vessel, the “operator” is subject to various federal and state vessel safety laws.

From the Code of Federal Regulations 33 CFR 173.3, a vessel includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water. A paddlecraft is a vessel powered only by its occupants, using a single- or double-bladed paddle as a lever without a fulcrum provided by oarlocks, thole pins, crutches or similar arrangements. An operator is a person in control or in charge of a vessel in operation.

In other words, when a paddler comes upon a sign or buoy that says “No Boats,” “No Vessels” or something similar, these warnings apply to them, and they are subject to enforcement action for entering restricted areas.

Vessel exclusion zones

Taken from A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats, signs like this indicate vessel exclusion zones.

Cordoned off with white beacons or buoys displaying the orange exclusion marker with information in black text (see illustration), vessel exclusion zones are in place for many reasons.

Paddlers often enter or paddle through swim areas, one of the most common vessel exclusion zones. However, paddling through a designated swim area is considered unlawful vessel operation and is subject to penalties (46 USC 2302 (a)(b)). To avoid unintended consequences, paddlers should always avoid swim areas. Consider this scenario: A paddler in a swim area gets smacked by a wave and injures a swimmer. Not only would the paddler be subject to civil penalties, but the paddler could also expect costly personal injury litigation.

Other areas exclude vessels and often members of the public. Exclusion zones in environmentally sensitive areas protect sea grasses, estuaries and areas undergoing coastal restoration. Exclusion zones in Critical Wildlife Areas protect nesting, roosting or foraging areas for birds and animals. Areas of extreme danger such as dams, spillways or rapids also have vessel exclusion zones.

Occasionally, boaters will encounter exclusion zones pertaining to certain classes of vessels. Warnings indicating “No Motorized Vessels” or “No Combustion Engines” are often posted in shallow grass flats to protect seagrasses from boat propeller damage. Paddlers and other human-powered craft can enter these areas without restriction. Paddlers should always pay close attention to vessel exclusion markers and comply with their stated restrictions.

A cruise ship being fueled by a barge, a World War II museum ship, and another cruise ship are docked within a restricted-access 50-yard security zone marked on the chart.

Homeland Security restrictions

After the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in which a small boat was used as a bomb and the subsequent attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the government enacted more stringent regulations to protect naval vessels, commercial shipping and critical infrastructure.

These regulations restrict access to petroleum facilities, power plants, dams, bridges, military areas and other critical facilities. They apply to all recreational boaters, including paddlers. Occasionally, you’ll see photos posted on social media displaying paddlers cruising by or posing beside large commercial vessels docked within major seaports. These paddlers unknowingly post photos of federal law violations carrying serious civil and criminal penalties. Homeland Security has five threat levels ranging from Low to Critical. Boaters can expect increased enforcement operations as the threat level increases.

A petroleum tanker offloads to fuel tanks in port. The entire area is behind an invisible barrier extending 50 yards from shore and marked on the chart.

Federal regulations describing safety and security zones for vessels, major seaports, critical infrastructure and the like can be found in 33 CFR 165, and detailed descriptions of each safety or security zone begin at 33 CFR 165.30. Depending on the protection needed, these zones can run from a 50-yard barrier in some areas up to 250 yards around a nuclear power plant. Most prohibited areas have vessel exclusion beacons or buoys and are marked on nautical charts, but occasionally, exclusion zones aren’t marked due to the physical constraints of the location. Always check the local chart, and stay at least 100 yards away from all military, cruise, or commercial vessels and critical infrastructure.

Naval vessel protection zones

All boaters are required to stay at least 100 yards from a naval vessel and slow to a minimum speed within 500 yards. While entering port, naval vessels are usually shrouded with U.S. Coast Guard, Navy or other patrol boats, and paddlers must obey any directions these authorities give. Naval vessel protection zone violations are felonies punishable by six years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine. Homeland Security restrictions are serious business, and paddlers must know and follow these regulations.


Considered critical infrastructure, some major bridges have security zones around them. The rules are different, however, since vessels must transit underneath bridges. Recreational vessels and paddlers may pass under bridges but should not stop, anchor or tie up to the structure.

­Of course, boaters should obey any regulatory signage posted around the bridge.

This chart section shows Florida’s Port Tampa Bay. Note the magenta line extending around the docks, which displays the restricted security zone.


Safety and security zones are indicated on charts, so paddlers should always consult a local chart before paddling in seaports or near military bases, power plants, petroleum facilities or other critical infrastructure. On printed raster charts, bold magenta-colored lines mark these zones, which are notated with the zone description and legal citation. On newer electronic navigational charts, the magenta lines display different symbology. During the transition from paper charts to electronic charts, ENC charts do not display any zone descriptions or notations. NOAA continues to upgrade the new ENC program. Those using mapping GPS units with chart packages usually find information about safety and security zones included. For example, when you zoom in on Garmin BlueChart, an icon appears if it is a security zone. Click on the icon, and information about the zone pops up.


All major seaports in the United States have security zones to protect the docked vessels and facilities from attack. In some ports, the security zone is a fixed area such as Florida’s Port Tampa Bay where the zone extends 50 yards from the dock, putting all docked vessels within the restricted area. In other ports, such as Baltimore, a moving security zone extends around specific types of vessels, such as cruise ships, petroleum tankers and other vessels that present high-profile terrorist targets. All recreational boaters and other unauthorized vessels are prohibited from entering these zones. Many restricted zones have no visual markers or signage, as seaports require maneuvering room for vessels and land-based signage would be blocked by docked vessels. All recreational boaters should consult nautical charts that display the security zones around seaports or critical infrastructure.

This power plant, located on Florida’s Old Tampa Bay, has a security zone extending 50 yards from the land.


Kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards are vessels. Exclusion markers indicating “No Boats” or “No Vessels” apply to paddlecraft. Homeland security restrictions vary depending on the situation and location and often are not marked on the water.

To simplify, paddlers encountering commercial shipping, military vessels, cruise ships or critical infrastructure (dams, power plants, petroleum facilities, etc.) should keep clear by at least 100 yards. Paddling near these objects is unlawful and hazardous.

All paddlers should take a boating safety course such as America’s Boating Course. Not only will you learn the boating safety regulations applicable to all boaters, but you will also learn to read a nautical chart, which displays much of the critical information regarding safety and security zones.

Jim Greenhalgh

Jim Greenhalgh of St. Petersburg Sail & Power Squadron/22 is a senior navigator, vessel examiner, and instructor, having taught boating safety and navigation since 1991. He draws on his vast sail and powerboating experience as a lifelong boater and avid sea kayaker. Jim leads trips for the Kayak Adventure Group, a sea kayaking club based on Florida’s west coast that he co-founded. He also wrote Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft, a must-read for all paddlers.

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