Load Limits and More: What Useful Information Can Be Found on a Capacity Plate?

Boating always involves some amount of risk, which is why following safety precautions is so vital. In general, following those guidelines keeps you safe and allows you and your passengers to enjoy water recreation. And the first place to look for helpful safety info is right in your boat. The boat you own (or the one you plan to buy) likely has a little metal plate with essential numbers on it. If you’re wondering what useful information can be found on a capacity plate, the answer is, a lot! Read on to find out more about capacity plates, including which boats have them and what to do if yours doesn’t.

What is the Capacity Plate?

As the name suggests, a capacity plate indicates the maximum capacity for a water vessel. Plenty of other information appears there, as well, and that’s due to a 1973 regulation from the U.S. Coast Guard. The legislation required that mono-hull boats shorter than 20 feet display a plate posting crucial passenger and other ratings.

Which Types of Vessels Have Capacity Plates?

Many larger boats feature capacity plates or have other signage to indicate safe passenger limits. But per the U.S. Coast Guard, boats under 20 feet long must have a capacity plate unless they are one of the following:

  • A sailboat
  • A canoe
  • A kayak
  • An inflatable boat

Although the above types of watercraft do not commonly have capacity plates, the manufacturers will specify limits and guidelines in the user manual. In general, a sticker or another kind of warning will be present on the body of the vessel. If not, investigate the user manual or the brand’s website for help.

A boat with a manufacture date pre-1973 may also lack a capacity plate. In that case, you can still calculate the capacity for the vessel—or contact the manufacturer for assistance.

Where is the Capacity Plate?

You can find your boat’s capacity plate near the helm of the vessel. Your boat’s helm is wherever you steer from, which will vary depending on the type of boat and how it operates. For example, boats with outboard motors have a “helm” near the stern (rear). You might find the capacity plate on the boat’s transom (the back “wall”). In boats with a cockpit, the plate may be within eyesight as you steer the boat.

On vessels shorter than 20 feet, the plate will carry the label “U.S. Coast Guard Maximum Capacities.” Boats from 20 to 26 feet long have wording which states only “Maximum Capacities.” Both size ranges have yellow plates with a silver background. Variations exist in the style and layout of the plates, as designs have changed over the years, but most have the U.S. Coast Guard logo. In some cases, the manufacturer logo is more prominent than the other information, but some plates lack branding information altogether.

Another Type of Plate

Some boat manufacturers also apply for certification with the National Marine Manufacturers Association. These types of plates highlight other information about your boat.

The NMMA examines and certifies models of boats and yachts (among other products) to provide safer products to the boating industry. If your boat has the NMMA certification, that means it has passed a detailed inspection process. 

The NMMA certification involves a special capacity plate with details such as certification of navigation lights, flotation devices, maneuverability, and other features. Power boat manufacturers do not have to participate in the program. However, they must follow the regulation for standard capacity plates.

What Useful Information Can Be Found on a Capacity Plate?

Primarily, a capacity plate dictates how many passengers (and what weight) the boat or personal watercraft can carry. However, it also contains much more information on safety and vessel operation. So what useful information can be found on a capacity plate? We’ll list details here.

Maximum Passengers

The “maximum persons” notation refers to how many full-size adults the watercraft can carry. However, the calculation manufacturers use for this limit can be deceiving. In most cases, boat manufacturers assume an average adult weight of 150 pounds per person. Factor your passengers’ weights into the equation to determine whether the maximum passenger limit is realistic for your guests.

Maximum Gross Load

The maximum gross load includes the total weight of all passengers. The number on the capacity plate can also give you an idea of what the manufacturer assumes each adult’s average weight is. Use the figure to calculate the per-person weight limit for your party.

In addition to following the guidelines for load limits, you should also aim to distribute the load evenly. Balancing passengers and equipment can keep your boat more stable and avoid capsizing.

Persons, Motor, & Equipment

You can estimate the overall weight by adding together the average weight of your passengers plus your equipment, fuel, supplies, and any other goods on the vessel. Because it can be difficult—if not impossible—to determine the exact weight on board, it’s helpful to look at how your boat sits in the water. If either the bow (front) or stern (rear) dip low in the water, that’s a sign you have overloaded.

Maximum Horsepower

On power boats, the placard contains maximum horsepower details. However, the placards do not specify horsepower for inboard or stern drive motors. Similarly, for manually propelled boats, there is no listed horsepower specification.

Manufacturer Information

Though the three previous figures are most crucial for a safe boating experience, the placards also include manufacturer information. You will likely find a manufacturer name, production date, and model number (or any combination of the three) on your boat’s plate.

What if My Boat Doesn’t Have a Capacity Plate?

If your boat is under 20 feet long or is a specific type of watercraft—such as a kayak or inflatable boat—it may not have a capacity plate. Or, if your vessel is older or you bought it used, the plate may have fallen off at some point during previous ownership.

In most cases, you don’t need to worry about the plate if you can determine the weight limits and horsepower without it. But you may need those details to obtain boat insurance, depending on the type and size of the vessel. Insurance coverage and pricing varies widely but having these specs can help you obtain coverage.

Even without a capacity plate, you can calculate the safe load weight for your boat. For mono-hull boats which measure fewer than 20 feet, you can use the length of the boat and multiply it by the boat’s width. Then divide that number by 15 to determine how many passengers you can safely carry. Personal watercraft use a different calculation for capacity. If your PWC doesn’t have a capacity plate, check your user manual or contact the manufacturer for details.

Keep in mind, however, that even boats with a posted limit specify such limits in good weather. In stormy or otherwise difficult water conditions, it’s wise to travel light or even stay on the shore instead.

What Happens if I Don’t Follow the Capacity Rules?

While guidelines are in place for a reason, it’s unclear whether a boat operator can receive a ticket for overloading a boat. In most cases, authorities patrolling the waterways tend to stop boats to check for safety features like life vests. But authorities can issue citations to boaters, though legislation varies by state and even by waterway.

Of course, the primary risk of not following the posted capacity rules is you could damage your boat or put your passengers at risk. An overloaded boat has a higher risk of capsizing, which could not only endanger the people on the boat but also people around you on and in the water.

Plus, flipping your boat over could damage the cockpit and other areas of the deck. You could lose your belongings, too. So while it may be inconvenient to limit the number of passengers you transport on your boat, it’s worth the safety risk to stick to the thresholds on your capacity plate. You may also avoid getting a potentially expensive citation from local authorities.