When I was younger, during the late 1960's and 1970's, my Dad had a personal-size sailboat, called the Sunfish. He loved it because it was lightweight, easy to sail on his own, and had room to include a few young children if we wanted to go with him. It was also easy to right by himself after capsizing, which we frequently did on purpose just for fun.

We used it regularly, on freshwater lakes and ponds throughout Massachusetts, where we lived. I would call him an accomplished solo sailor.

Each year during that same time period, we spent the month of August in Nantucket, an Island about 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Almost every day we sailed throughout the ocean waters of the region. Some areas were calm, and others were quite choppy and rough.

One day while he was out in the Sound by himself, a thunderstorm, including lightning, arose. He wanted to wait it out, but the Coast Guard spotted him. They brought him in, impounded the boat, and he had to pay a fine to get it back. I don't know if there were actual written rules he didn't follow, or if the Coast Guard just considered him a danger to himself, or a reckless person, and reacted accordingly.

What are the current rules in 2017? Can a Sunfish be sailed during a thunderstorm in waters off the Massachusetts/Cape Cod region? Is a permit required? Are there separate rules because of its design or weight class, or are the rules the same regardless of the size or type of boat?

If this question is easier to answer without it being specific to Massachusetts, that's fine. I just didn't want to make it too broad, especially since rules may vary from state to state. Feel free to expand it to increase the amount of useful information for the community.

  • 3
    I doubt it is a law. Even with a gale warning it is only highly recommended. They may have nabbed him on some other technicality.
    – StrongBad
    Aug 28, 2017 at 1:16
  • 3
    Not sure on state specifics but I believe you have to register the boat with most states. Same reason you register a car. Maybe it was impounded until he got it registered?
    – Collatrl
    Aug 28, 2017 at 19:41
  • 1
    @Sue Does not answer your question but is related and possibly useful in that situation: If you go far enough from shore that you are considered to be in international waters, which is not very far, then I don't believe the Coast Guard can do much of anything to you since you would be out of their jurisdiction. So just go out 15 miles from shore before the storm, then you should be fine. Of course, if you then beg for help after doing that, they probably are not required to help you; again, since you left their jurisdiction. They might help anyway (don't quote me on that). And maybe bill you.
    – Loduwijk
    Oct 4, 2017 at 21:11

1 Answer 1


The short answer is yes, if the rules are followed, it is technically legal for personal size sailboats, 16ft (4.9m) or under, to be out in a thunderstorm in Nantucket Sound. The Sunfish, which is 13.9ft, (4.23m), falls into that category. However, it's not smart, and is highly discouraged!

Massachusetts State Boating Laws break watercraft down into two classifications; those with motors and those without.

For use in public waterways, registration is only required for watercraft which have a motor, even if the motor is not the primary means of propulsion. Watercraft without motors do not need to be registered with the State. The Sunfish was designed without a motor, and I believe that's still true. Therefore registration is not necessary, and would not have been the cause of your dad's trouble.

Federal Safety Regulations:
All boats, of all sizes, registered or not, must comply with Federal Regulations for safety. Federal laws are classified by boat size. The smallest category is 16ft (4.9m) or smaller. As I said above, the Sunfish is 13.9 ft, (4.23m) so it falls into that category.

Among other things, boats in this category are required to carry:

  • Life Jackets (PFDs):
    One Type I, II, III, IV, or Hybrid Type V for each person. Hybrid Type V must be worn at all times to meet Coast Guard regulations.
  • At least one oar or paddle
  • Anchor
  • Whistle, Bell or Horn:
    Any device capable of making an "efficient sound signal." This regulation is applicable for boats up to 65.6 ft. (20 meters). Larger boats have stricter sound requirements.

The Massachusetts Marine Trades Association Massachusetts Boat Safety Tips website clearly lays out the rules for all varieties of boat. All boaters would benefit greatly from reading that site and its related links. They have a list of potentially life-saving safety tips, two of which may have been especially pertinent in the case of your father's incident.

Be weather wise. Sudden wind shifts, fog, lightning flashes and choppy water all can mean a storm is brewing. Bring a portable radio to regularly check weather reports.

Tell someone where you're going, who is with you, and how long you'll be away.

If your dad complied with legal rules but not safety rules, that would have been enough to get him in trouble. Putting other boats and boaters at risk of injury just to have the adventure of sailing in a storm is a bad idea. Your suspicion that he might have been considered reckless makes sense.

Also, it's disrespectful to use precious agency resources when they have more important problems to attend to during a weather event. Impounding the boat and punishing the sailor would have been appropriate.

The waters surrounding Nantucket are governed by a complex combination of Federal and State jurisdiction, mostly for environmental protection reasons. A few different agencies monitor watercraft behavior.

I've had some trouble locating enforcement measures for small sail boats in current times. Some sites say that agencies are frustrated when it comes to enforcement, mostly because revocation of license is the first line of defense, and small sail boats don't need to be licensed. Some infractions are just overlooked, unless they're very dangerous, or committed by repeat offenders. Even with the rules in place, impounding doesn't seem to be used as it was so many years ago.

Nantucket's population has had tremendous growth in the last 50 years. The island was much less populated at the time of the incident you described, so local enforcement was probably more personally involved. The fine itself was probably for the infraction, the cost for the boat to be towed to and stored in the impound area, or both.

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