Anyone born on or after January 1, 1989 is required to complete a boating safety course to legally operate a motorized boat or personal watercraft (PWC) on Wisconsin waters. DNR recreational safety specialists recommend all boat operators complete a safety course. See the boaters handbook for more information!

Boating Safety

Boating Safety Tips - Know Before You Go!

Stand-up paddle boarding is the fastest growing water sport in the world. With the rise in popularity, many paddle boarders often forget that being on a paddleboard requires the same safety precautions and vigilance as any other activity on the water, which includes having a life jacket on their board. But DNR strongly recommends wearing the jacket. "Wearing a life jacket significantly reduces the chance of injury or death."

New federal boating laws and life jackets

  • You must carry one wearable USCG-approved serviceable PFD of the proper size and type for each boat occupant. No tears, rips, broken straps or snaps. Use the Charmin squeeze test on kapok PFDs to check for punctures in the inner plastic liner. And remember: All PFDs must be ready at hand and not enclosed in plastic bags or locked compartments.
  • Boats 16 feet and over must also carry one USCG-approved throwable PFD (Type IV).
  • If your boat has any enclosed compartments or a false floor you must carry a USCG-approved fire extinguisher. Make sure that it is charged and accessible.

Safe Boating, Safe Return!

  • Always test your boat lights before the boat leaves the dock. If you use battery-operated lights, always carry extra batteries. Keep in mind that even if you plan to be back before dark, an equipment malfunction or bad weather may change your plans.
  • Be weather wise. Sudden wind shifts, lightning flashes and choppy water all can mean a storm is brewing. Bring a radio along and keep a close eye on the weather.
  • Bring emergency supplies such as maps, flares, and a first aid kit. Put them in a floating pouch.
  • Tell someone where you are going and when you will return.
  • Check the boat landing for any local regulations applicable on the waterway where you will be boating.
  • If boating on the Great Lakes or Mississippi River, review the federal regulations for additional federal requirements.
  • Always ventilate after refueling. Open all hatches and run the blower. Sniff for fumes before starting the engine and if fumes exist, do not start the engine.
  • Learn the proper anchoring procedures for your boat. Improper anchoring is the cause of many fatal accidents.
  • Never consume alcohol or drugs before or during boat operation. Alcohol's effects are greatly exaggerated while boating. Research has proven that four hours' exposure to sun, glare, wind, noise, and vibration produces boater fatigue which slows reaction time almost as much as being legally intoxicated. Adding alcohol to this equation can be fatal.
  • If you loan your boat to someone, teach them how to operate it. This is true for all boat owners but rings doubly true for PWC. In 1996, 36% of all boats involved in accidents occurred while the boat was being borrowed. Borrowed boats accounted for 16% of all fatalities and 43% of injuries. 54% of the personal watercraft involved in accidents were borrowed. If you share the boat -- share the knowledge!
  • Never allow passengers to ride on gunwales or seatbacks or outside of protective railings, including the front of a pontoon boat. A sudden turn, stop or start could cause a fall overboard.
  • Make certain your registration is up to date and that the current year sticker is displayed. Always carry your registration card on board with you.

Who May Operate A Motorboat?

  • No one under the age of 10.
  • Children ages 10 and 11 if accompanied in the boat by a parent or guardian or a person at least 18 years of age designated by a parent or guardian.
  • Children ages 12-15 if accompanied in the boat by a parent or guardian or a person at least 18 years of age designated by a parent or guardian or if in possession of a boating safety course completion certificate issued by WI DNR or another State.
  • Anyone 16 years of age and older may operate a motorboat only if he or she has completed a boating safety course that is accepted by the Wisconsin DNR. A person born before January 1, 1989, is exempt from the safety course requirement.

There are no age requirements for operating a boat that is not equipped with a motor.

Personal Watercraft Safety

Personal Watercraft Safety Refresher

Personal Watercraft (PWC) are classified as Class A (less than 16 feet in length) inboard boats. All PWC must be registered and display valid registration decals and registration numbers on the forward half of both sides of the craft and abide by all boating regulations, plus the following specific regulations.

Who May Operate A Personal Watercraft?

While personal watercraft (PWC) are motorboats, there are additional age restrictions on their operation:

  • No one under the age of 12 may operate, lease or rent a personal watercraft.
  • A person 12-15 years old may operate a PWC only if he or she has completed a boating safety course that is accepted by the Wisconsin DNR. (Parental supervision is not a substitute for a boating safety course certificate as with other motorboats.)
  • Anyone 16 years of age and older may not rent or lease a PWC.
  • Anyone 16 years or older may operate a PWC only if he or she has completed a boating safety course that is accepted by the Wisconsin DNR. A person born before January 1, 1989, is exempt from the safety course requirement. 

Synopsis of Wisconsin’s Personal Watercraft Law

  • No person may operate a PWC from sunset to sunrise.
  • All persons riding a PWC must wear a PFD of the proper size and type (type I, II, III, or V).
  • No person may operate a PWC equipped by the manufacturer with a lanyard without the lanyard attached to the operator.
  • No person may sell a PWC manufactured after 1/1/93 unless equipped with a lanyard or self-circling device.
  • No one under 12 may operate a PWC. (Rental age limit is 16.)
  • Persons at least 12 but under 16 must be in possession of a valid, state-approved boating safety student certificate to operate a PWC. (Parental supervision is not a substitute for a boating safety certificate as with other motorboats. PWC operators must have a certificate.)
  • It is illegal to operate a PWC facing backwards.
  • Rental PWC:
    • No one under 16 may rent a PWC.
    • Rental agent must provide PFD of proper size and type.
    • Rental agent must provide renters with instruction on PWC operation unless the renter holds a valid boating safety student certificate or has previous experience operating a PWC.
  • There is no towing of persons engaged in water skiing, aquaplaning, or similar activities unless the PWC is designed to seat at least 3 people.
  • PWC towing of stranded or disabled boats is only allowed if speeds do not exceed slow-no-wake.
  • PWC are restricted to a slow-no-wake speed anytime:
    • the PWC is within 100 feet of any other boat or PWC on any body of water.
    • the PWC is within 200 feet of the shoreline of any lake.
  • It is illegal to operate a PWC within 100' of the following:
    • another boat towing a skier or person engaged in similar activity.
    • the tow rope of another motorboat towing a skier or person engaged in similar activity.
    • a person involved in skiing or a similar activity.
Life Vests

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDS)

The U.S. Coast Guard and Wisconsin requires vessels of less than 16 foot in length to be equipped with one Type I, Type II, Type III or Type V for each person on board. This means that even canoes and kayaks must carry a wearable PFD for each person on board.

Vessels 16 foot or more in length must be equipped with one Type I, Type II, Type III or Type V for each person on board plus at least one Type IV throwable for the boat.

In order to be an acceptable, each PFD must be:

  • U. S. Coast Guard Approved.
  • In good condition which means no tears, rips, broken straps or snaps. Use the Charmin squeeze test on kapok PFDs to check for punctures in the inner plastic liner.
  • Of a suitable size for the intended wearer.
  • Readily accessible. This means it may not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments or under other equipment.

Please note that Type V PFDs do not meet the PFD carriage requirements unless they are worn. PFD's come in a variety of shapes, colors, and materials. Some are made to be more rugged and last longer while others are made to protect you from cold water. No matter which PFD you choose, be sure to get one that's right for you, your planned activities, and the water conditions you expect to encounter. Always look for the United States Coast Guard approval number on any PFD you buy.

What You Need To Know About Life Vests For Children

A life vest or a life jacket is a Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (PFD) that helps you and your child float in the water. Drowning is often silent, takes as little as five minutes and usually happens when an adult is nearby. A child should wear a life jacket anytime they are near water such as in a boat or innertube as well as on docks and river banks.

Buying A Life Vest

If you own a boat or plan on renting a boat or boating with a friend, you should buy your child a PFD. PFD's come in various types and sizes and there may not be a PFD of the proper size and type to rent or borrow. In addition, some types of PFDs will keep you from sinking, but not necessarily from drowning.

When buying a life vest, check for:

  • Coast Guard approved label.
  • A snug fit. Check weight and size on the label and try the PFD on your child. Pick up your child by the shoulders of the PFD; the child's chin and ears won't slip through a proper fit.
  • Head support for younger children. A well designed PFD will support the child's head when the child is in the water.
  • A strap between the legs for younger children. This is a good feature because it helps prevent the vest from coming off.
  • Comfort and appearance. This is especially important for teens, who are less likely to wear a PFD.

How Do You Use A Life Vest?

  • Every spring, check the life vest for fit as well as wear and tear. Throw it away if you find air leakage, mildew, rot or rust.
  • If a child panics in the water and thrashes about, he may turn onto his face, even though a PFD with a collar is designed to keep him on his back with face out of the water. Have your child practice wearing a life vest in the water - this will help prevent panic and rolling over.
  • Never alter a PFD. It could lose its effectiveness.
  • Wear your own life vest to set an example, and to help your child if an emergency occurs.
  • Never use toys like plastics rings or water wings in place of a PFD.
Remember: PFDs only work when they are worn, and they do not take the place of supervision!
Boat Launch Etiquette

Practice Good Boat Launch Etiquette

  • Get your launch time down by a practice loading/unloading on a day that isn't too busy - such as a weekday.
  • Remove any residue from other lakes and waterways such as weeds, snails, or other items that could cross pollute or introduce an unwanted species into the lake. • Remove covers and straps before you get in line to launch.
  • Load equipment into boat before you reach the ramp. Make sure all equipment is working and the plug is in.
  • Once in line to launch, have a person available to hold the bow line and assist in boat handling at the pier.
  • Have one person drive the boat off the trailer and out of the way of other boaters while another person is parking the tow vehicle.
  • Upon departure from boat launch, maintain slow-no-wake speed for a safe and legal distance from boat launch.
  • If bad weather is approaching, get off the water early to avoid a long waiting line in inclement weather.
  • Drop one person off at pier to get vehicle and get in line.
  • Once loaded, pull well away from launch area to secure boat for traveling purposes.
  • Before you leave the area entirely, check around you for any loose trash or discarded items. Dispose of them properly. Leave the boat launch in the same or better condition than how you found it.