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Boating on the Ohio River

The Ohio River is considered to be "federal waters" and boaters need to comply with all U.S. Coast Guard requirements.

Ohio River Navigation Charts are available via the Internet (bookstore.gpo.gov and search for "Ohio River Navigation Charts"), by calling the Government Printing Office toll-free at (866) 512-1800, or by mail order with the Government Printing Office order form.

When operating on the river, all State of Ohio watercraft laws are in effect; in addition, some lesser-known provisions also apply. Various security zones are located along the river. Various state law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction, depending on where you are boating. Be sure you know the state laws for the area where you will be boating.

Operating Regulations

Following are some lesser known provisions that are applicable:

No Wake Zones (ORC 1547.08): Ohio law states that any watercraft operating within 300 feet of a marina, gas dock or launching area must travel at no wake or "idle speed." Boat operators are responsible for any damage that their wake may cause. Stay in the main channel of the river when operating at greater than idle speed.

No wake or idle speed is also enforced during the period from sunset to sunrise according to local time within any water between the Dan Beard bridge and the Brent Spence bridge on the Ohio River for any vessel not documented by the U.S. Coast Guard as commercial.

Most of the creek and backwater areas leading to the Ohio River are also zoned as no wake. (Check with your local enforcement agency.)

Kentucky officials announced they have expanded that state's no-wake zone from 100 feet to 300 feet between the Brent Spence and Daniel Carter Beard bridges near downtown Cincinnati and Covington, Kentucky, during daylight hours. The new regulation became effective June 19, 2002. Boaters, PWC operators and other powercraft must operate at idle speed within 300 feet of near-shore vessels, marinas, docks and harbor entrances. The new regulation is intended to enhance boating safety by reducing speeds in a highly congested area and to reduce wakes that effect small boats and shoreline structures.

Rules of the Road (OAC 1501.47)

When operating on waters where a current is present:

  • A vessel heading downstream has right of way over a vessel heading upstream.
  • Recreational watercraft are sharing the river with large commercial vessels that are confined to a channel. Boaters must yield the right of way to them.
  • A vessel crossing a river shall keep out of the way of a powerdriven vessel ascending or descending the river.

When operating the vicinity of a narrow channel:

  • A vessel in a narrow channel shall keep as near to the right side of the channel as is safe and practical;
  • A power vessel proceeding downbound with a following current shall have right-of-way over an upbound vessel;
  • Vessels less than 20 meters long, sailing vessels, vessels engaged in fishing, or vessels crossing the channel shall not impede passage of a vessel that can safely navigate only within a channel;
  • Vessels shall avoid anchoring in narrow channels; An overtaking vessel shall indicate its intention by sounding the appropriate signal and take steps to permit safe passing. The overtaken vessel sounds the same signal if in agreement;
  • A vessel nearing a bend or an area where vessels may be obscured by an obstruction shall navigate with caution and sound appropriate signals;
  • Vessels leaving a dock, slip, tie-up or mooring shall yield the right-of-way to all vessels approaching.

VHF (Ship-to-shore) Radio Use

Channels to Use

ODNR encourages all boaters using the Ohio River to install a VHF radio in their watercraft. The VHF radio is a vital link in obtaining help in the event of an "on-the-water" emergency.

Be aware that certain VHF channels are reserved for exclusive use purposes:

Channel Reserved for...
WX 1,2,3 Weather
13 Towboat traffic and lockmasters
16 Emergency, mayday and safety calling frequency
17 Exclusive state use
21 Exclusive United States Coast Guard
22 General public to Coast Guard/daily river level reports and updates for aids to navigation buoy and light reports
23 Exclusive United States Coast Guard
24-28 Marine telephone operator
81 Exclusive United States Coast Guard
83 United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Emergency Use

In the event of an emergency, distress calls are made on channel 16, the national distress frequency, using the following procedure:

  1. Select channel 16.
  2. State "mayday, mayday, mayday".
  3. Give your call sign and boat name.
  4. Give the location of your craft.
  5. Describe the emergency.
  6. If no answer, repeat the same sequence and wait.

Non-emergency Radio Use

For normal radio operation: Select Channel 9 (a recognized hailing channel), state the name of the vessel you are attempting to contact, then your vessel's name and call numbers once; when the other craft responds, switch to another channel to talk.

Radio Licensing

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires a Ship Station License for some vessels equipped with VHF radios, RADAR, EPIRBs and some other telecommunications equipment. As of 1996, most recreational vessels no longer need the FCC license if operating domestically. "Domestically" means not traveling to foreign ports or transmitting to foreign stations, including Canada.

Vessels still required to carry an FCC Ship Station License:

  • power vessels over 20 meters (65.6 feet) in length;
  • certified to carry more than 6 passengers for hire;
  • towboats and commercial fishing vessels;
  • other vessels required by federal law to carry a VHF radio, radar, etc.

The Ship Station License must be on board the vessel.

A license application (Form 506) can be obtained from any office of the FCC. Call 1-800-418 FORM (3676) for an application and information. There is a fee for the license.

Law Enforcement

The Ohio River is a boundary between Ohio and the states of Kentucky and West Virginia. Numerous enforcement agencies patrol this river and each has the authority to enforce boating safety laws and assist boaters in distress. Boating safety equipment and operating laws vary from state to state. Please contact the following agencies for boating or fishing regulations.

US Coast Guard

Marine Safety Detachment
3653 River Road
Cincinnati, OH 45204

West Virginia

Natural Resources Law Enforcement Section
1900 Kanawha Boulevard
Building 3, Room 837
Charleston, WV 25305


Fish & Wildlife - Division of Law Enforcement
#1 Game Farm Road
Frankfort, KY 40601
Info: 1-800-858-1549
Violations: (In-State)
1-800-252-5378, 1-800-828-2628


Natural Resources Indiana Conservation Officers
District 9 Headquarters
11050 Keeler Road
Brookville, IN 47012-0100

Ohio DNR Division of Parks & Watercraft

Scioto County Office
3261 Kenyon Road
Franklin Furnace, OH 45629

East Fork Office
3292 Elklick Road
Bethel, OH 45106