How big a boat can I drive in Australia?

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How big a boat can I drive in Australia?

So you’ve decided your immediate future has a boat in it. How big a boat can you skipper, though?

The rules around who can jump behind the helm of a recreational boat vary between the Australian states and territories.

The difference is huge; in some instances, you don’t even need a boat licence to take to the water, while in others you will need to keep a logbook to show that you have at least a basic real-world understanding of how to drive a boat before you’re handed a licence.

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The rules are entirely different for anyone with a professional ticket who’s operating a commercial or surveyed boat. But how big a boat can you drive if it is being used purely for recreational boating? contacted all the Australian states and territories to ask just that.

As it turns out if you’re driving a boat purely for pleasure, in all but a few isolated cases, size doesn’t matter.

No Australian state or territory restricts the size of a pleasure boat that someone can skipper, meaning that anyone authorised to steer a recreational boat can jump straight up from a decidedly second-hand tinnie fitted with a 15hp two-stroke outboard engine to a 30-metre-plus superyacht packing several thousand horses.

Pilotage areas

There are, however, some restrictions around where you can drive a big boat.

In NSW, Queensland and Victoria, if you enter a declared pilotage area such as a major port or the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, you may need the services of a marine pilot to help you navigate the waters. This, though, only applies if the vessel you’re steering is more than 35 metres long, so it really only applies to superyachts.

The exception to everything, though, is in the Northern Territory where absolute boating freedom reigns supreme. Here, you don’t need a boat licence – if asked, you just have to demonstrate that you have an understanding of the navigation and on-water safety framework – or even a registered boat, and there’s absolutely no limit to how large a vessel you can legally steer.

Best of all, because NT laws don’t recognise boats as vehicles, you can’t be pinged on the water for drink-driving unless there’s an on-water incident that attracts the attention of police. In theory, any resident of the Territory can read the official boat operator’s handbook, then go out and buy Aussie John Symond’s 73-metre Hasna (it’s for sale for a lazy $160 million, after all) and steam into Darwin with an open stubbie of beer in their hand and no one – not even police – will raise an eyebrow.


In stark contrast to the NT, NSW requires everyone who wants to get their marine licence to keep a logbook that shows they have hit several real-world benchmarks, including how to load a boat on a trailer, on at least three separate trips out on the water.

It ensures that anyone sitting the test has at least some basic experience the first time they head out on the water, no matter what the size of the boat.

Other countries

In Europe, anyone wanting to drive a power boat in either inland or Mediterranean waters will need to hold an international certificate of competency to operate a craft up to 10 metres in length.

A separate licence is required in Europe for recreational boaters wanting to skipper a power boat stretching more than 10 metres in length, which strangely doesn’t allow the holder to use a jet ski – for that you’ll need the sub-10-metre certificate.

In the US, states issue boat operators with either a boating education card after they have completed an authorised training course or a boat operator’s licence that needs to be regularly renewed.


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I'm a writer who focuses on the outdoors and travel. I share my time between Alaska and Colorado, where, when I'm not writing, I enjoy camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and skiing (often with dogs in tow). My byline may also be seen in publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and others.


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