Boating Laws Change

Boating Laws Change

By Dan Penning

Children under the age

of 14 may no longer

operate personal

watercraft, or jet skis

All states, and in some circumstances the federal government, regulate the use and enjoyment of watercraft. Although the information below relates to the state of Michigan, if you plan on boating this summer here or elsewhere, take 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

Michigan has approximately 3,288 miles of Great Lakes coastline, more than 10,000 inland lakes and ponds and is interwoven with 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?

In Michigan, you must have a certificate of number (registration) and valid decal to operate a vessel legally on the public waters in Michigan. These are applied for at the Secretary of State.

The only exceptions are:

– Privately owned rowboats, 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

The registration number and valid decal (sometimes referred to 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 at

Law Enforcement Authorities

The state boating laws are enforced by officers from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), county sheriff departments, US Coast Guard, 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.

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 six horsepower (hp) without restriction.

– May legally operate a boat powered by a motor of more than six 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 six hp without restriction.

– May legally operate a boat powered by a motor of more than six hp only if they have passed a DNR boating safety course and have their boating safety certificate on board, or are accompanied on board by a person of at least 16 years of age.

What About Jet Skis,

or PWC?

Those less than 14 years of age:

May not legally operate a PWC.

Those aged 14 and 15:

A PWC can be operated only after earning a boating safety certificate and if the operator is accompanied 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.

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. Regardless of their knowledge of them, boaters will be held accountable.

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 PFD for each person on board or being towed.

PFDs that are approved by the Coast Guard 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

If you are being towed in any manner by a boat, you must wear a PFD. When towing an individual, there must also be an observer on the vessel besides the operator at all times. Boat towing is only allowed between one hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset. PWC towing is only allowed between 8:00 a.m. and sunset.

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.

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.

Depending on the conviction, fines can range between $1,000 to $10,000, with prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years.

The above 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 in Michigan. There are many boating courses available through the DNR, the 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.

For more information about The Penning Group, Advisors + Attorneys, please contact Dan Penning at or 248.893.1400.