Pleasure Craft Regulations

The Merchant Shipping Regulations apply to all vessels under the UK flag, in UK waters or operating from UK ports.

Exemptions to the regulations are granted within the legislation. This includes, the size of a vessel, the number of passengers it carries on board and how the vessel is used. These are all factors that determine which of the regulations a vessel must comply with (such as manning requirements or mandatory equipment).


There are many terms used within the merchant shipping regulations to classify vessels.  These are defined in full in the regulations. The following are a selection you may come across:

Pleasure vessels

used for the sport or pleasure of the owner or the immediate family or friends of the owner (read the legal definition of a pleasure vessel);

Class XII vessels

pleasure vessels of 13.7m in [registered*] length and over; (read about Mandatory equipment for Class XII vessels);

* if a boat is registered this will be the length as shown on the certificate of registry. If a boat is not registered, length is measured from the forepart of the stem to the aft side of the head of the stern post or, if no stern post is fitted the fore side of the rudder stock at the point where the rudder passes out of the hull.


Any type of craft which is: 

  • capable of moving under its own mechanical power,
  • used, navigated or situated wholly or partly in or on water, and     
  • capable of being used to carry one or more persons

Intended Pleasure Vessel

The Code of Practice for Intended Pleasure Vessels in Temporary Commercial Use at Sea (IPV Code) was introduced on 1 January 2019. It allows vessels which are normally used within the definition of a pleasure vessel to be used commercially at sea temporarily, on a self-certification basis subject to certain conditions being met. The IPV Code disapplies the relevant Merchant Shipping Regulations in the circumstances specified in the Code.

Small Commercial Vessel

The Merchant Shipping Regulations generally consider a vessel to be “commercial” if it is used ‘not as a Pleasure Vessel’. If a vessel is operated outside the definition of a Pleasure Vessel and it is not an intended pleasure vessel it must comply with the requirements for commercial vessels. The RYA is a Certifying Authority for Small Commercial Vessels (SCV).  

Passenger ship

carries more than 12 passengers regardless of its size and use.

The Merchant Shipping (Watercraft) Order 2023

The Merchant Shipping (Watercraft) Order 2023 extends the application of certain provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 and the Harbours Act 1964 to watercraft. The provision is applied to watercraft, as they apply to ships albeit with modifications in some cases.

If a boat is operated other than as a pleasure vessel it must comply with the relevant regulations For example, the Code of Practice for Intended Pleasure Vessels in Temporary Commercial Use at Sea or the Codes of Practice for Small Commercial Vessels.

International Conventions

Many of the regulations that apply stem from international conventions.  They are brought into UK law through Merchant Shipping Regulations, such as:

  • International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS or COLREGs) implemented in the UK by the Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals & Prevention of Collisions) Regulations 1996 (SI 1996/75), as amended.
  • Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) implemented in the UK by the Merchant Shipping (Safety of Navigation) Regulations 2002 (SI 2002/1473), as amended.
  • Marine Pollution (MARPOL)
  • United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)


If you go boating on or near the coast the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS or COLREGs) will apply to you. The COLREGs, as defined in rule 1, apply to all vessels navigable on the high seas and waters connected to the high seas. 

It is essential you know these rules well enough to be clear when you are the stand on vessel or the give way vessel. You need to know the correct action to take when in close quarters with other vessels and to avoid a collision.

As well as steering and sailing rules, COLREGs dictate what day shapes and navigation lights a vessel must display to indicate the vessel's status to other vessels. COLREGS also determine when and what sound and light signals a vessel is to make.

A sailing vessel under 20m in length can combine the side and stern lights required under COLREGs in a single lantern at or near the top of the mast (a tri-colour). However, using deck level side and stern may help the officer of the watch on a larger vessel identify you against background lights and make it easier for them to establish the distance you are away from them, particularly in inshore waters.

Although it is sufficient for a sailing vessel to just display deck level side and stern lights, the COLREGs allow a sailing vessel to show an all-round red over green light at the top of the mast in conjunction with deck level port, starboard and stern lights. This is another way to remove the ambiguity a tricolour can cause.

Many nautical publications include core information from the COLREGs. The full text of the regulations should be available from any good nautical bookshop. The RYA’s International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, is written with the pleasure craft skipper in mind with notes to help yachtsmen interpret and apply the rules.

Before you can apply the COLREGs you need to establish whether a potential collision situation exists, what action is expected of the vessels involved, when action should be taken and whether the action of the give-way vessel is sufficient to prevent the collision. A key element in this process is deciding whether the other vessel has seen you.

If the vessel in question is large commercial ship, consider the size of your vessel and the distance it is away from you. If you cannot see the bridge of the ship from your boat, the chances are that the Officer of the Watch on that ship cannot see you!

COLREGs do not give one vessel "right of way" over another. The stand on vessel must also take action if the action of the give way vessel alone is not sufficient to prevent a collision (or if the give way vessel takes no action). All the rules, relevant to a situation must be considered before decisions are made, as must the situation and the handling characteristics of the boats involved.

The MCA has provided guidance on COLREG in Chapter 8 of MGN 599.


There were many issues contributing to the significant loss of life that occurred when the Titanic sank. These were addressed by the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) which is intended to preserve life onboard any ship or craft at sea.

Originally the SOLAS Convention did not apply to vessels of less than 150GT. Such conventions are however periodically reviewed. Since 1 July 2002. SOLAS Chapter V, has applied to “all ships on all voyages” except warships, other government owned or contracted ships and ships navigating solely on the Great Lakes of North America. SOLAS V therefore applies to UK pleasure vessels, although there are many exemptions leaving the following applicable regulations:

  • Regulation 19 - RADAR REFLECTORS
  • Regulation 29 - LIFESAVING SIGNALS
  • Regulation 31 & 32 - DANGER MESSAGES
  • Regulation 33 - DISTRESS MESSAGES  - Distress Situations: Obligations and procedures
  • Regulation 34 - VOYAGE / PASSAGE PLANNING - Safe navigation and avoidance of dangerous situations

Find out more about SOLAS V Regulations.


Along with COLREGs and SOLAS, MARPOL the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, stems from the United Nations (UN). Specifically for marine matters the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the UN agency which looks after maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships. A pleasure craft’s obligations under MARPOL are detailed in the Environment area and holding tanks are discussed within Boating Abroad. The MCA has also provided advice in Chapter 10 of MGN 599


United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides a framework for the use of the oceans. It is this convention that defines the territorial waters of a country and whether a vessel is under flag state, coastal state, or port state law. For more information see the law of the sea and the coastal state.


The legislation governing the evidence of competence required for the operation of a pleasure vessel is the Merchant Shipping (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) Regulations 2015. The 2015 regulations do not apply to a pleasure vessel which is less than 80 GT or under 24 metres in load line length.

Therefore if your vessel is used within the legal definition of a pleasure vessel and is either less than 24m in load line length or less than 80GT, there is no requirement for you to have a certificate of competence to skipper the vessel in UK territorial waters or on the high seas.

For vessels of  or exceeding 24m in load line length and 80GT or more, MSN 1858 details the manning requirements for deck officers and MSN 1859 details the manning requirements for engineering officers.

If the use of the vessel is not within the scope of the definition of a pleasure vessel manning should be in accordance with the applicable regulations or code of practice.

The MCA provides guidance on additional legislation, which applies where crew are employed or engaged, in MGN 599.


Class XII vessels (pleasure vessels of 13.7m in length and over) are required to comply with the Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection: Small Craft) Regulations 1998 and the Merchant Shipping (Life-Saving Appliances For Ships Other Than Ships Of Classes III To VI(A)) Regulations 1999.

However practical problems came to light and there is a possibility of conflict with the Recreational Craft Directive (RCD) which has resulted in three Exemptions to the Merchant Shipping Regulations. Owners of Class XII vessels have a choice; if they opt to comply with one or more of these Exemptions, they do not need to comply with the underlying regulations to which they relate. The exemptions are published by the MCA in MGN 599.

For pleasure vessels of less than 13.7 metres in length, there are no statutory requirements for safety equipment other than those required under SOLAS V. That said, although safety equipment may not be required by law, it is essential that you properly equip your boat prior to putting to sea.

If the use of the vessel is not within the scope of the definition of a pleasure vessel, the vessel should be equipped in accordance with the applicable regulations or code of practice.

Maritime Radio

The Merchant Shipping (Radio Installations) Regulations 1998 do not apply to Pleasure Vessels. It is therefore not mandatory under these regulations for a Pleasure Vessel to have a "radio installation" on board. It is however highly recommended that vessels are equipped with maritime radio equipment suitable for the area of operation.

Where a VHF radio or other maritime radio equipment (such as an EPIRB, AIS, ATIS, Radar etc.) is carried, the equipment must be licensed.

A Ship Radio Licence (or Ship Portable Radio Licence) will be required for most boats together with a maritime radio operator certificate authorising the operation of maritime radio equipment if applicable. In the UK Ship Radio Licences and Ship Portable Radio Licences are issued by Ofcom.

For equipment capable of voice transmissions a maritime radio operator licence (such as the Short Range Certificate (SRC)) is usually also required for the operator. See Licensing Onboard Electronics for further guidance.

If the use of the vessel is not within the scope of the definition of a pleasure vessel the vessel should be equipped in accordance with the applicable regulations or code of practice.

Other UK Regulations Relevant to Pleasure Vessels

MGN 599, in paragraphs 10.12 – 10.18, provides details of legislation concerning Air Pollution Prevention and Use of Antifouling Paints applicable to Pleasure Vessels.  Information regarding registration, survey and certification regulations is given in Chapter 11 of MGN 599 and Chapter 12 covers other Regulations Relevant to Pleasure Vessels. MGN 599 also includes best practice advice.

Byelaws and Local Regulations

Harbour Authorities may have local byelaws in force which apply to leisure boats such as speed limits within the harbour, restricted areas, and requirements to monitor specific VHF channels.  Establishing what these are should be part of your passage planning.

Some Harbour Authorities may have their own website and publish small boat guides e.g. the Port of London Authority website.  In addition, there are usually details of byelaws in Almanacs and pilot books and the more important rules, such as speed limits are posted up on notices within the harbour.

Local Notices to Mariners (LNTM) are often available online and many harbour authorities allow you to subscribe for email updates as and when a new notice is published. A list of sources for LNTM is published under Local Notices to Mariners.