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The Pleasure Craft Operator Card

Now that summer is finally here, hundreds of thousands of Canadians will be taking to the water to fish, water ski, cruise or ride personal watercraft. And who can blame them? After enduring a long, cold winter it's almost a prerequisite of being Canadian to get out on a lake or river and partake in some type of water activity. The sun and spray seem to have a way of rejuvenating us after several long months of hibernation and many of us can't wait to hop in our watercraft and start having fun. But before we take off from the dock, we need to be sure we've got a Pleasure Craft Operator card.

In 1999 the Canadian government enacted legislation that required all operators of motorized watercraft to prove competency in boat operation by taking and passing a safety course. The legislation was phased in, in three stages, over a 10-year period.

Get the Pleasure Craft Operator Card

If you were born after April 1, 1983 you need the operator's card now.

If you operate a powered vessel under 4 meters long, including personal watercraft, you need the operator's card now.

All other watercraft operators will need the operator's card by September 15, 2009

The first stage required that anyone born after April 1, 1983, would need to pass a course and obtain their Pleasure Craft Operator card by September 15, 1999 before they could operate a motorized watercraft. The second phase dictated that anyone operating a motorized vessel under 4 meters in length (roughly 13-feet), including personal watercraft, would have to have the card by September 15, 2002. The final phase of the program requires all operators, regardless of age or the size of boat, to have a card by September 15, 2009.

If you took a safety course prior to April 1, 1999, the certificate you obtained is a valid proof of operator competency, however, the certificate must clearly show that the course was taken in Canada before April 1, 1999.

This means that if you were 22-years old or under, as of April 1, 2005, you need a card if you plan to operate any type of powered vessel this year. If you operate a small, powered boat - anything under 4-meters in length - you need a card right now, regardless of your age. If you fall outside of these two categories of boater, you will need to have a Pleasure Craft Operator card no later than September, 2009.

The only exception to the operator card requirement is if you are renting a motorized vessel. In this case you must complete a rental boat safety checklist administered by the person renting the watercraft. The safety checklist will be considered your proof of competency and will be valid for the duration of the rental period only. You will need to go through this procedure every time you rent a boat. Of course if you have an operator’s card you won’t be required to complete a safety checklist when you rent a powerboat or PWC.

It’s worth noting that any watercraft that is fitted with a motor is considered to be a motorized vessel and you need an operator’s card if you plan to be on the water in one. This includes canoes with electric trolling motors or small gasoline engines, sailboats that have auxiliary engines (whether the engine is in use or not), personal watercraft, boats powered solely by electric motors and others. In short, if it floats and has a motor on it, you need a card in order to legally operate it.

You can get a Pleasure Craft Operator’s Card by studying and taking the test on-line. The costs are similar regardless of how you plan to study although individual course providers are free to set their own rates. You may save a few dollars by shopping around, but cheaper isn’t always better. More on that later. Once you have passed the competency test, your Pleasure Craft Operator Card is good for life.

On-line testing is becoming a very popular way to get your operator’s card. Some of the on-line course providers will have study materials available on their websites while others only have the test and leave it to the student to locate the appropriate study materials.

When choosing a course provider, remember that they must be approved by Transport Canada in order to legally administer the competency training and testing. A list of approved course providers is available on Transport Canada’s Office of Safety website located at

Along with accreditation, you’ll want to ensure that your course provider is a legitimate business that will be around for years to come. This is especially important in the case that your card is ever lost or destroyed, since only the original issuing course provider can issue a replacement card. If your original card issuer goes out of business and you need your card replaced, you will need to pay for and pass the test again with another course provider.

When you are looking for a course provider it is in your best interests to choose one that has been around since the inception of the program and who will be around in the future. Operations that don’t have a proper business structure including buildings, staff etc. should be viewed with suspicion. This is one time when cheaper most certainly isn’t better.

A boater competency course covers a wide range of basic safety and skills issues including the minimum safety equipment requirements for your boat, understanding the Canadian Buoy system, sharing the waterways with other users, a review of all applicable regulations and how to respond in an emergency situation. The course is not difficult and most people who study the materials are able to pass on their first attempt.

If you are a boater and haven’t yet obtained your Pleasure Craft Operator’s Card, you might want to contact a course provider and take the test sooner rather than later, even if you don’t legally need it until 2009. According to an industry spokesperson, a reform is in the works that will see the competency test increase to 50 questions from the current 36 sometime in late 2006. This will obviously make the test tougher to pass, and it will also undoubtedly increase the costs associated with getting a card.

Another reason for getting tested early is that there are still over 8 million boaters in Canada who have not yet obtained their card. As the deadline for the new testing requirements draws closer there will be more people rushing to get into courses, which could create a backlog. As the September 2009 date when every boater must have a card approaches, course providers expect another surge in course applicants, again causing potential delays in getting people tested and carded.

If you operate a powered vessel on Canadian waters, you are required to operate it safely and competently, and the only way to prove competence is by passing a safety course from an approved course provider. With the season upon us, there’s no better time than right now to sign up for a course, get tested and get your card.