What Certification Is Required To Operate A Small Boat For Work?

Wondering what certification is required to operate a small boat for work? The short answer is “most likely just a PCOC” – but read on to find out for sure.

Recent Small Boat Certification Legislation

There is considerable confusion across Canada in the wake of new Transport Canada boating legislation that came into effect at the end of 2010. Before that, the only certification required for small boat operators was for those using boats for recreation.

In November 2010, new legislation was introduced that affects anyone operating a “small commercial vessel”, ie. a boat under 15 tons, generally under 12 metres, that is not a fishing vessel* or a pleasure craft. This category also includes boats operated by government agencies and volunteer organizations, which, although not operated for profit, still fall under the “commercial” umbrella because they are not being operated solely for pleasure.

Now, anyone operating a small commercial vessel must have either a:

  • PCOC (Pleasure Craft Operators Certificate)
  • SVOP (Small Vessel Operator Proficiency) Certificate

The Name (Doesn’t) Say it All

Part of work place confusion is arising because “Pleasure Craft Operator” implies recreational use only—and so anyone wanting to use a small boat for work assumes they need the SVOP. Not so. In fact, most inland boat operators as well as ocean-going boaters who stay close to home only require the PCOC.

The other source of confusion is that we’ve found that most front line employees at Transport Canada don’t understand who needs what, and in fact, some “higher ups” will even provide incorrect information.

To sort this out, we kept trying until we found a Transport Canada employee who really knew what they were talking about. We hit “gold” when we found a senior staffer in Nautical Certification and Examination, Transport Canada, who personally wrote a good chunk of the new legislation and understands its implications inside out. 

To the best of our abilities, here is what we’ve determined as an answer to the question, ‘What certification is required to operate a small boat for work?’:

Who Requires a PCOC?

A PCOC is required if you are the operator of a small commercial vessel that is:

  • Under 8 metres (~26.3’) in length
  • Under 10 gross tons
  • Operated in sheltered waters (see definition below)
  • Not carrying more than six passengers* (*see definition below)
  • Not towing another vessel

A PCOC is still all that is required if:

  • the boat is not carrying any passengers, and provided the operator does not travel more than two nautical miles from shore on a body of water classified as “near coastal, Class 2” (see definition below).


  • the boat is a fishing vessel* under 15 gross tons, less than 12 m in length, and travelling on sheltered waters or not more than two miles from shore on “near coastal, Class 2″ waters.

Does everyone on board need a PCOC?

No. Only the principal operator of the vessel requires a PCOC, others on board (crew and passengers) are not required to have this certification.

Who Requires an SVOP?

An SVOP is required if you are operating a boat that is:

  • More than 8 metres (26.3’) in length
  • Being operated more than two miles from shore in “near coastal, Class 2” waters
  • Transporting more than six passengers* (*see definition below)
Small boat operations at work


Sheltered waters voyage: Defined by Transport Canada as a voyage:

  • on a body of water that is a lake or river above tidal waters, where a vessel can never be further than one nautical mile from the closest shore (ie. the lake or river can’t be more than two miles wide at any point)


  • larger bodies of water and coastal waters including bays, inlets and harbours listed in Transport Canada’s “Schedule 1: Sheltered Waters” during specified times of year. For example, sheltered waters include Nanaimo Harbour all year round, and Toronto’s Outer Harbour between May 1 and October 31. Transport Canada’s current list of “Sheltered Waters” can be obtained here.

Note:  Transport Canada has asked the Coast Guard in each province to compile a list of bodies of water considered to be “sheltered”, but it is far from complete at this point, and in fact, there are no listings for any of Alberta and only one for Manitoba as of yet. Therefore, if an operator is in doubt, they should contact their regional Coast Guard office.

Near coastal, Class 2 voyage: Defined by Transport Canada as a voyage where the vessel is not more than 25 miles from shore. This would include voyages on larger lakes such as Babine Lake (153 km/95 miles long but only 2-10 km/1.2-6.2 miles wide) and coastal waters such as the Gulf of Georgia. However, many voyages on a massive body of water such as Lake Huron would not be considered “near coastal”, however, many of its harbours, bays and inlets are considered sheltered waters (see above).

Nautical mile: A nautical mile, or 6,076 feet, is one minute of latitude. A land mile, of course, is 5,280 feet.

Passengers: Defined by Transport Canada as anyone not part of the crew, or normally required for the operation of the boat. This includes colleagues being transported to a work site. People do not have to pay a “fare” to be considered passengers.

Compare Boat Certification Courses

Small Non-Pleasure Domestic Vessel Basic Safety Certification
The old “MED” program is being replaced with the Small Non-Pleasure Domestic Vessel Basic Safety (SDV-BS) certification. Captain and crew members (not passengers) also need a SDV-BS certification (essentially firefighting aboard a boat). There are are various SDV-BS levels, depending on the type of boat and the size of boat, but the 8-hour course is the most common requirement for the small vessels considered here.

First Aid Certification
One person aboard (usually the “captain” or principal operator) needs a first aid certification, such as Marine Basic First Aid, or any basic first aid certification of 16 hours or more. More information on first aid requirements can be found here.

PCOC & SVOP Course Content
These Transport Canada certification courses are almost always delivered entirely in the classroom (or, in the case of the PCOC, online) and very rarely include a practical, boat-based component. The SVOP includes topics such as chart work, shipboard safety, pollution prevention, meteorology, Canadian buoyage system, and radar. You can be certified to operate a boat “safely” for work purposes without ever having stepped foot in one.

Raven Boat Handling & Safety Courses
Raven’s approach to motorized boat handling courses is very different. You actually get into a boat, on the water, behind the controls, and learn to drive it yourself, in a safe manner. Clients bring their own boats and ideally, we conduct the course on the body of water in which they will be working.

We believe that boat operators should obtain both the relevant Transport Canada certification (usually PCOC for our clients) as well as our course, or one of a similar practical, hands-on nature, in order to be in compliance with legislation as well as experienced in the safe operation of a motorized watercraft.

Personal Responsibility
Please be aware that this “certification required to operate a small boat for work” summary is not a definitive guide, nor has it been approved by Transport Canada, and that you have a duty to make yourself thoroughly familiar with the laws and regulations that apply to your particular vessels and area of operation. Additionally, some employers may choose to exceed the minimum certification required by Transport Canada and train their personnel to the higher level of the SVOP.

Emergency Response small boat operator

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