Car Buying Tips

So… You Want to Buy a Boat

Canadians love the water. There’s something special about spending time near water, whether it’s s a gently flowing river, a lake in the woods, or a remote coastal inlet. One of the best ways to enjoy the water is aboard a boat, so it’s no surprise that with its many rivers and lakes, and many, many kilometres of coastline, Canada is a boating nation: According to a 2012 National Marine Manufacturers Association study, 35 percent of Canadians are involved in boating in some way, and collectively we own over 4.3 million boats.

If you want to join in the boating fun it can seem daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are the top things you need to know before taking the plunge.

Do I need a boating licence?

If you want to run a power-operated boat you’ll need a boating licence, officially known as a PCOC (Pleasure Craft Operator Card). It’s intended to ensure that boaters know the basic rules of the water and how to safely operate a boat.

To obtain your card you need to pass a written test either online or in person (at a boat show or boating training centre, for example). One of the most popular ways to get your card is to sign up for a boating safety course, which will teach you everything you need to know and then administer the test. If you’re already an experienced boater but don’t yet have a PCOC, you can challenge the test without taking a course (challenging the test can only be done in person).

There are a few exceptions to the PCOC requirement: You don’t need a PCOC to operate a non-powered boat – a rowboat, canoe or small sailing dinghy without a motor, for example. You don’t need a PCOC when renting a small power boat (the rental agreement includes a basic rules and safety checklist). And you don’t currently need a PCOC to operate a pleasure boat in Nunavut or the Northwest Territories.

For more information on the PCOC, see:

Does the boat itself need to be licensed?

If the boat you want to purchase has a motor of 10 hp or more, then it must be licensed or registered. Non-powered boats and boats with motors 9.9 hp and smaller are exempt. If the vessel was previously licensed, you can simply transfer the licence into your name. Obtaining or transferring a pleasure vessel licence can be done by mail or online, with everything you need available online at:

When you get a new boat licence you’ll need to put the licence number on both sides of the bow, in letters at least 7.5 centimetres high. Most marine stores sell stick-on letters specifically for this purpose.

There’s no charge for a pleasure craft licence, and you have a 90-day grace period to register a newly purchased boat. The licence is valid for 10 years, after which it must be renewed. Your boat’s licence helps identify the boat in case of an on-the-water emergency or theft, and if you fail to licence your boat you can be fined $250.

An alternative to licensing a boat is to register it. Vessel registration is the system used for large commercial vessels, and a registered vessel is identified by its name and home port rather than a licence number. It can be useful to register your vessel if you’ll be using it to travel to different countries (bluewater sailors prefer registration for this reason), but registration is a more involved and expensive process than licensing, with a $250 fee. For information, see:

Is boating expensive?

The old joke about buying a boat says that, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” The truth is that boating can be as inexpensive or as expensive as you choose to make it. Non-powered boats are generally inexpensive new or used, while small trailerable powerboats offer a world of boating possibilities and can be found on in good condition for as little as a few thousand dollars. If you have a place to store it, there needn’t be much in the way of operating costs beyond fuel, routine maintenance, and insurance.

On the other hand, it’s easy to spend a quarter of a million dollars or more if you want to own a large powerboat or a bluewater sailboat, and fuel bills can quickly rack up even in moderately sized powerboats. Move up to the world of luxury yachts, and the sky really is the limit, both in terms of purchase and operating costs.

What about insurance?

Insurance is important not just to protect you in case your boat gets damaged or stolen, but to cover liability in case of an accident. Small boats can often be covered with a simple rider on your home insurance. Larger boats will need a standalone marine policy, and in this case your insurer may want to have the boat surveyed (inspected) prior to issuing the policy. A survey is a good idea anyhow when buying a larger boat, as it can uncover any problems with the vessel. It’s an extra cost you’ll need to account for, however. Your marine insurer can recommend a surveyor, or you can search online (see, for example).

For small boats, insurance costs are typically much less than car insurance – rates start at a few hundred dollars a year, and even a 35-footer doesn’t usually cost much over $1,000. For larger, more expensive vessels, however, insurance can be a significant cost. Whatever size boat you’re considering, it’s wise to look into the price of insurance before signing on the dotted line.

What type of boat is best?

Boats come in all types and sizes: open boats, runabouts, bowriders, pontoon boats, centre consoles, sunbridge boats, ski boats, cabin cruisers, sailboats, and the list goes on. Narrow your search by deciding where you’ll most often use your boat, and what you’ll be using it for. For fishing, a centre console allows you to move all around the boat when there’s a fish on the hook. Pontoon boats offer tremendous space to relax and socialize on protected waters. Ski boats pack plenty of power and style for watersports. Runabouts and bowriders are good all-around boats. Cabin cruisers offer space for weekend getaways. Sailboats provide the thrill of cruising or racing with only the wind propelling you. The choices are nearly endless, so spend some time looking at different possibilities and figuring out what suits your particular needs and budget.

Where will I keep it?

It’s easy to imagine being out on the water aboard your newly purchased boat. It’s important, however, to imagine where you’ll keep the boat when you’re not using it. The cheapest and easiest solution, if you live in a detached house and purchase a trailerable boat, is to keep the boat on its trailer in your driveway or backyard.

Another solution is to keep the boat at a storage facility. These can range from general-purpose storage facilities, to more specialized recreational vehicle storage yards, to specialized boat yards and marinas. The latter may provide launch and retrieval services, so you can arrive to find your boat waiting in the water for you.

In-the-water moorage is popular for larger vessels, and makes summer boating easy and convenient, but unless you live on the west coast you’ll still likely need a place to haul and store the boat during the winter. Wet moorage can also be costly and difficult to find – in Vancouver there’s typically a waiting list for moorage, with prices at the city’s public marinas (Burrard Civic and Heather Civic marinas) running around $335 a month for a 27-foot boat. Bluffers Marine Park in Toronto works out about to roughly the same annual cost (docking a 27-foot boat costs about $432 monthly during the May 1 to Oct 15 boating season, and $212 monthly for land storage over the winter).

Can I tow it?

The law says you can tow any boat less than 2.6 m (8 ft 5 in) wide and 12.5 m (41 ft) long without special permits, but ultimately your vehicle’s towing capacity will determine what size boat you can tow. A moderately powered 18-foot bowrider and trailer weighs roughly 1,360 kg (3,000 lb). A 23-footer will come in closer to 2,270 kg (5,000 lbs). Trailerable sailboats generally weigh somewhat less for a given length (a 24-foot racer/cruiser can weigh as little as 1,590 kg with trailer).

If you’re going to be towing your boat, find out what your vehicle’s towing capacity is, and how much the boat you want to purchase weighs. Factor in 450 kg (1,000 lb) for the trailer and gear. If the boat and trailer add up to more than about 75 percent of the vehicle’s rated towing capacity you’ll need to either choose a smaller boat, or buy a bigger vehicle. At 50 percent capacity, you’ll need trailer brakes in most jurisdictions. Keep in mind that if you’re likely to be launching from steep, slippery launch ramps (especially tidal ramps), a rear-wheel-drive pickup or all-wheel-drive SUV is preferable to a front-wheel-drive vehicle.

Plan to have fun

With a little research and planning, you can figure out what kind of boat will give you the most pleasure for the least cost and hassle. Whether that turns out to be an inflatable kayak you can carry in the back of your hot hatch, or a substantial cabin cruiser to be towed with a specifically purchased truck, the reward of getting out on the water will make the homework worthwhile.