Be Aware of the "Rules of the Water"

All states, and in certain circumstances the federal government, regulate the  use and enjoyment of watercrafts of all kinds on water located within or contiguous to any particular state.  Although this writing concentrates on the State of Michigan, if you plan on boating this summer in your own state of residence or another that you will be visiting, I encourage you to take the time to familiarize yourself with the "rules of the water" to protect you, your family and your friends as you enjoy boating this summer.


Michigan - King of the Fresh Water

The State of Michigan is surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes - the world's largest fresh water lakes.  These Great Lakes constitute 90% of the United States fresh surface water.  Michigan has approximately 3,288 miles of Great Lakes coastline, has more than 10,000 inland lakes and ponds and is interwoven by a 35,000 mile web of fresh water, rivers, streams and wetlands.  Accordingly, Michigan leads the nation for registered boats.


When Must Your Vessel be Registered for Use?

All operators are required to obey the laws that regulate a particular vessel's registration, titling and operation for use in the State of Michigan and similarly, in all other states which have adopted similar rules and regulations.  In Michigan, you must have a Certificate of Number (registration) and valid decal to operate a vessel legally on the public waters in Michigan.  The only exceptions are:

  • Privately owned row boats, 16 feet or less in length.
  • Privately owned non-motorized canoes or kayaks.
  • Vessels registered in another state or country using Michigan waters for 60 days or less.

When required to be registered, a Certificate of Number and validation decals are obtained by submitting the proper application and fee to any Secretary of State branch or office.  The Certificate of Number (registration card) must be on board and available for inspection by an enforcement officer whenever the vessel is being operated.  The registration number and valid decal sometimes referred to in Michigan as a boat's "MC Number" must be applied as a decal, or otherwise affixed to both sides of the bow of a vessel above the water line and must read from left to right on both sides of the bow.  The "MC" number is the equivalent of a license plate for your watercraft.  

You can find the closest branch office of the Secretary of State to acquire the registration number for your vessel in Michigan by calling (517) 322-1460, or on the internet at www.michigan.gov/sos.


Law Enforcement Authorities

The boating laws of the State of Michigan are enforced by officers of the Law Enforcement Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, county sheriff departments, US Coast Guard (USCG), and any other authorized law enforcement officer.  They have the right to stop and board vessels to check for compliance with federal and state laws.  The US Coast Guard has enforcement authority on federally controlled waters, which in Michigan is largely associated with the Great Lakes and those waterways which are naturally connected and navigable to and from the Great Lakes.  By operating a watercraft vessel on any waterway within the State of Michigan, you are voluntarily subjecting yourself and your vessel to the authority of the aforementioned law enforcement agencies.


What Age Do You Have to be to Operate a Watercraft in the State of Michigan?

Those under 12 years of age:

  • May legally operate a boat powered by a motor of no more than 6 horsepower (hp) without restriction.
  • May legally operate a boat powered by a motor of more than 6 hp, but no more than 35 hp, if they are directly supervised on board  by a person at least 16 years of age.
  • May not legally operate a boat powered by a motor of more than 35 hp under any condition.
  • May not legally operate a personal watercraft (PWC).

Those 12 to 15 years of age:

  • May legally operate a boat powered by a motor of no more than 6 hp without restriction.
  • May legally operate a boat powered by a motor of more than 6 hp only if they have passed a boating safety course approved by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and have on board their boating safety certificate, or are accompanied on board by a person of at least 16 years of age.
  • For a personal watercraft (PWC), those less than 14 years of age may not legally operate a PWC.  Those 14 and 15 years of age may operate a PWC legally only if they have obtained a boating safety certificate and are accompanied on board by his or her parent or legal guardian, or a person at least 21 years of age who has been designated by the parent or legal guardian, or he or she is operating or riding the PWC at a distance of not more than 100 feet from his or her parent or legal guardian.

Those 16 years of age or older:

  • May operate any boat on the waters of Michigan
  • With respect to a PWC, those at least 16 years of age and born after December 31, 1978, may operate a PWC legally only if they have obtained a boating safety certificate.  Those born on or before December 31, 1978, may operate a PWC legally without restrictions.

All states that have mandatory boater education requirements will accept a Michigan boater education card and likewise, Michigan will accept boating education cards that are issued by states that meet the NASBLA requirement.  

Regardless of the requirements as set forth above, any person using a boat or watercraft should enroll and complete a basic boating safety course, as well as continuing their education by taking a course that focuses on boat handling, operation and other boating logistics.  It is important that boaters be aware that state boating laws are updated annually and that boaters are responsible for staying informed of any changes to state boating safety requirements and will be held accountable to those requirements regardless of their knowledge of them.  


Life-Saving Devices/Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

An operator of a vessel is legally required to ensure that all equipment as prescribed by law is on board and available for use.  All vessels must be equipped with a personal flotation device for each person on board or being towed.  

  • The US Coast Guard (USCG) requires that all vessels have at least a Type I, II or III personal flotation device that is USCG approved, wearable and of the proper size for each person on board or being towed.  Sizing for PFDs is based on body weight and chest size.
  • Michigan's PFD law permits a vessel that is less than 16 feet long, or is a canoe or kayak, to have either a wearable PFD (Type I, II or III) or a throwable PFD (Type IV) for each person on board.

Michigan law requires all children under 6 years of age to wear a USCG-approved Type I or Type II PFD when riding on the deck of any vessel.  Each person under 12 years of age riding on or towed behind a PWC must wear a USCG-approved Type I or Type II personal flotation device.  Each person over 12 years of age riding on or towed behind a PWC must wear a USCG-approved Type I, Type II or Type III personal flotation device.

Personal flotation devices that are approved by the USCG are clearly marked and designated as to their class and style.  Most sporting goods stores or boating supply stores like West Marine have these devices or pictures of these devices in their online stores.


Rules Regarding Towed Water Sports in Michigan

All persons engaged in towing activities must be wearing a personal flotation device while water skiing, riding a tube or being towed behind a vessel in any manner.  Skiing while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including prescription narcotics and illegal drugs is forbidden.  When towing an individual, there must also be an observer on the vessel besides the operator at all times.  Water skiing (or towing of people on other devices) is only allowed between one hour before sunrise, and one hour after sunset, when being towed behind a boat.  It is only permitted between 8:00 a.m., and sunset when being towed behind a personal watercraft.

The operator of a boat may not manipulate or control the boat so as to cause the person(s) being towed to collide with any object or person.  Persons who are water skiing, riding a tube or being towed behind a vessel in any manner may not come within 100 feet of the following:

  • All stationary or anchored vehicles;
  • Designated swimming areas, as well as all persons in the water; and/or
  • All docks or floating rafts.


Boating Under the Influence

Michigan law prohibits anyone from boating while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance.  It is also unlawful for the owner of a vessel to allow anyone else to operate their vessel if that person is under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances.  The following conditions determine if a vessel operator is boating under the influence:

  • The person has a blood alcohol content of 0.10 grams or more per 100 milliliters of blood, per 210 liters of breath, or per 67 milliliters of urine.
  • If your blood alcohol concentration is greater than 0.07% but less than 0.10% by weight of alcohol as determined by a breath, blood or urine test, a law enforcement officer can consider that fact along with other evidence in determining if you are under the influence.

Michigan law provides the following penalties for violation of the aforementioned rules:

  • People arrested for boating under the influence are guilty of a misdemeanor.  Upon a third conviction within 10 years, a person will be guilty of a felony.
  • If a person boating under the influence causes a death of another person, he or she will be guilty of a felony, punishable by imprisonment for not more than 15 years, or a fine of not less than $2,500.00 or more than $10,000.00, or both.
  • If a result is a serious impairment of a body function of another person, the violator is guilty of a felony, punishable by imprisonment for not more than 5 years, or a fine of not less than $1,000.00 or more than $5,000.00, or both.

It is important to note that by operating a vessel on Michigan waters, you have consented to be tested for alcohol or drugs if arrested by a law enforcement official in the same manner as you are when driving a motor vehicle.

Every individual should keep in mind that because of the fatiguing effects of the sun, wind and motion of the boat, one drink on board a vessel is like three on shore!  This means if you are drinking at all, then you should not be operating a boat or PWC.  Do not jeopardize your safety or the safety of other boaters or passengers in your care.  Your balance, vision, coordination and judgment are all affected adversely by the consumption of even one alcoholic beverage while on a vessel.  Coupled with the environmental elements (sun, glare, wind, motion), alcohol can have very serious consequences on the water.

In summary, the aforementioned information is only a small portion of the various rules and safety regulations affecting the use and operation of watercrafts and vessels on the waterways of the State of Michigan.  Like any endeavor, boating should be taken seriously, and there are numerous boating courses available through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, your local sheriff department and other organizations such as the US Coast Guard Power Squadron Association.

Enjoy boating this summer and please observe the "rules of the water" to maintain your safety and the safety of others you are responsible for on your vessel!

Dan Penning