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Boat Safety Issues: How to Remain Safe (and legal) on Michigan’s Waterways this Summer

Boat Safety Issues: How to Remain Safe (and legal) on Michigan’s Waterways this Summer

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. Coast Guard offered Michigan high school students a free class titled “Pleasure Boating” to instill smart boating practices and encourage safe sailing on Michigan’s 11,000 lakes. Students who completed the course received a certificate attesting to their achievement. It was voluntary, but it probably made parents much more comfortable allowing their kids to explore the state’s many waterways.

Nowadays things are a little less voluntary. Because state law requires anyone born after June 30, 1996 wishing to operate a powerboat to obtain a Michigan Boating Safety Certificate proving they have the knowledge required to safely pilot a vessel. It’s easy and it’s affordable — simply enroll in a free in-person boating course offered by the state and taught by certified instructors. Pass the class (there’s a written exam on which you’ll have to score at least 75 percent), collect your certified boater card, and hit the water! For a head start, you can even begin studying the state’s official handbook of boating laws right now.

If you’d rather take the course online, the state has approved Boat-Ed to offer a fee-based ($29.50) training program, which also requires passing a final exam. And there are a couple of other online boating safety courses which also meet Michigan’s requirements, one offered by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and another by America’s Boating Club (otherwise known as the United States Power Squadron).

Full-size boats are great, but perhaps you’d prefer the exhilaration of operating a Personal Watercraft (PWC) such as a jet ski or wave runner in Michigan waters. If you were born any time after December 31, 1978, you’re required to obtain the same Michigan Boating Safety Certificate to operate a PWC as well.

Other Safety Regulations Also Apply on the Water

Beyond possessing a valid Boating Safety Certificate, some additional age-related regulations apply for legal operation of boats and PWCs in Michigan. For example, boat operators must be at least 12 years of age and PWC drivers can’t be younger than age 14. There are also limitations related to the horsepower of the vessel being operated. For complete details, visit the age-restrictions page on the Department of Natural Resources website which outlines these requirements. The DNR also notes that many inland lakes have specific rules concerning boating – such as prohibitions of gasoline-powered motors or bans on water skiing. Be sure to check out those rules before you take to the waters.

Why Does Michigan Have So Many Boating Regulations?

The answer is simple. Boating accidents caused by reckless operators cause deaths, injuries, and millions of dollars in property damage across the state every single year. Quite simply, a few bad apples make being on the water much riskier for other boaters and swimmers – as illustrated by the recent Kalamazoo-area criminal trial of a boater convicted of piloting his vessel while under the influence and killing an innocent 18-year-old swimmer in Gull Lake. The 39-year-old boat driver was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison following his conviction. Don’t let that be you.

Other tragedies further demonstrate the need for boaters of all ages to consider a refresher course in boat safety. A couple of weeks ago two vessels occupied by four senior sailors – men ranging in age from 70 to 86 – collided in Diamond Lake in southwestern Michigan. Fortunately, there were no fatalities resulting from that accident, and alcohol wasn’t involved… but it could easily have been much worse. That was certainly the case when two boaters both died when their vessel capsized in the Detroit River in late August 2020. That year alone, 29 other people were killed in Michigan boating accidents. The fatalities have continued to add up this year as well, with more tragic events making the news, like this one in late May where an Ohio father went missing in Devil’s Lake south of Jackson after falling off a tube in the water. According to news reports, his body has yet to be recovered.

We could go on and on. Boating accidents, some caused by alcohol and others by sheer foolishness or misfortune, are regular summertime occurrences across the state. There are so many Michigan boat accidents that the state actually tracks them with a lengthy Official Boating Accident Report form, which law enforcement officers must complete to document every reported incident. This report can be helpful in establishing liability for any boat-related accident, so be sure to obtain a copy (we can help with that) if you’ve been involved in a collision, a capsizing, a fall overboard, or another maritime incident. The form refers police officers to Michigan’s Watercraft and Marine Safety laws, which have been established over the years on hundreds of pages of crisp legalese by state legislators. And while marine patrol officers are charged with enforcing the numerous laws on the books (which are intended to prevent such incidents), it’s the responsibility of informed and careful boaters to help prevent these kinds of tragedies from continuing to take place. We hope you’ll be one of them.

So, What Basic Safety Guidelines Should I Follow?

Other than driving your boat cautiously, paying attention to navigational aids and markers, and being completely sober whenever you’re on the water (because the same legal BAC limit applies), there are some proven water safety tips you should observe. The Coast Guard has a list of equipment requirements based on the size of your vessel, starting with canoes and kayaks under 16-feet long, going all the way to cruisers and yachts up to 165 feet. If you’re boarded by Coast Guard or marine patrol officers and you don’t have the required equipment on hand, you’ll be cited and likely be fined depending upon your boat’s location.

Check West Marine for a helpful, comprehensive listing of the Coast Guard’s safety equipment requirements cataloged by boat size. These include, among other things, fire extinguishers, visual and audio distress signals, and more. Along with that list, Michigan has specific rules concerning the use of personal flotation devices (more commonly known as lifejackets), all of which must be approved by the Coast Guard to be legal here. Essentially, you need to have one approved PFD per passenger on any boat anywhere you travel in the state’s waters. You’re also required to have a throwable PFD on hand. And all kids aged five and under must be wearing a USCG-approved Type 1 or Type II PFD anytime the boat is underway.

What Happens if I Do Everything Right on the Water but Someone Else Doesn’t?

That’s where we come in. As dedicated attorneys who know all about boating accidents (along with many other types of personal injury cases), we can help you get compensated for any injuries or losses you might experience, including financial damages for boat repairs and medical expenses for injured family members – not to mention compensation for the pain and suffering you and your loved ones might experience due to someone’s maritime negligence. If you’re ever victimized in a boating incident on Michigan’s Great Lakes, its picturesque rivers, or its inland waters, call us at 855-MIKE-WINS (855-645-3946) or go straight to the boating attorney information page on our website for more details. We’ll be there for you day or night – come hell or high water!

Boat Safety Issues: How to Remain Safe (and legal) on Michigan’s Waterways this Summer

Content checked by Mike Morse, personal injury attorney with Mike Morse Injury Law Firm. Mike Morse is the founder of Mike Morse Law Firm, the largest personal injury law firm in Michigan. Since being founded in 1995, Mike Morse Law Firm has grown to 150 employees, served 25,000 clients, and collected more than $1 billion for victims of auto, truck and motorcycle accidents. The main office is in Southfield, MI but you can also find us in Detroit, Sterling Heights and many other locations.