What are Michigan's boating laws?

Ken Haddad
Ken Haddad
  • Updated

There is a reason that Michigan is among the leaders in the nation for registered boats. With four of the five great lakes surrounding us, 10,000 inland lakes and ponds, and a 35,000 mile web of rivers, streams, and wetlands, it is important to know the rules of the water road. Here is what we think you need to know if you’re heading out on the boat anytime soon.

I’m no expert, but it seems like one of the most important things to know before you go is the size of your vessel. A vessel’s length class determines the equipment necessary to comply with federal and state laws. Keep your vessel’s size in mind as you go through this breakdown of The Handbook of Michigan Boating Laws and Responsibilities.

What to know: Pre-launch

Make sure your watercraft is registered

According to The Handbook, “you must have a Michigan Certificate of Number (registration) and validation decals to operate your vessel legally on public waters in Michigan.” There are exceptions to registration requirements; if you are operating a privately owned rowboat 16 feet or less in length, if you are operating a privately owned non-motorized canoe or kayak, or if your vessel is registered in another state using Michigan waters for 60 days or less.

The Certificate of Number (registration card) must be on board at all times and available for inspection by an enforcement officer whenever the vessel is being operated. In addition to having the registration card on board, the registration number and validation decals must be displayed. The number must be affixed to both sides of the bow as high above the water line as practical. The number must read from left to right on both sides and the numbers must be at least three-inch-high block letters.

If you still need to title and register, The Handbook says, “The Certificate of Number and validation decals are obtained by submitting the proper application and fee to any Secretary of State branch office. You can find your closest branch office by calling 1-800-SOS-MICH (1-800-767-6424) or on the internet at www.michigan.gov/sos”

Michigan has specific requirements for boat trailers, according to The Handbook:

  • Trailers must be licensed and registered
  • If the gross weight of the vessel and trailer exceeds 3,000 pounds, the trailer must be equipped with brakes.
  • Trailers must have proper lighting, including turn signals, taillights, and brake lights. All trailer lights must be maintained in an operable condition - same as when the trailer was manufactured.
  • All towing vehicles must be connected to the trailer by a safety chain or cable of sufficient strength to maintain connection under all conditions.
  • All aquatic plants must be removed from trailers, watercraft, and equipment before launching watercraft.

Who may operate a boat or personal watercraft?

The big question. Can your teenager take the jet ski for a joy ride? Lets find out.

Those less than 12 years old may operate a boat powered by a motor of no more than 6 horsepower legally without restrictions. They may only operate a boat powered by a motor of more than 6 horsepower but no more than 35 if they have been issued a boating safety certificate and have it on board the boat AND are directly supervised on board by a person at least 16 years of age.

Those less than 12 may not operate a boat powered by a motor of more than 35 horsepower legally under any conditions.

The moment you have all been waiting for, who may operate a personal watercraft (PWC)? Those less than 14 years of age may not legally operate a PWC. Those 14 and 15 of age may operate legally ONLY IF they have obtained a boating safety certificate AND he or she is accompanied on board by his or her parent or legal guardian, or by a person at least 21 years of age who has been designated by the parent or legal guardian.

Equipment required on board

Life jackets!

All vessels must be equipped with a personal flotation device (PFD), or life jacket, for each person on board or being towed. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) requires that all vessels have at least one Type I, II, or III PFD that is USCG-approved, wearable, and of the proper size for each person on board or being towed.

One USCG-approved throwable device must also be on board vessels 16 feet or longer and readily accessible.

Michigan law requires all children under 6 to wear a USCG-approved Type I or II PFD when riding on the open deck of any vessel while underway.

Each person riding on a personal watercraft (PWC), or being towed behind a PWC or other vessel, must wear a USCG-approved Type I, II, or III PFD. Inflatable PFDs are not allowed on a PWC or while being towed behind a PWC or other vessels.



Navigation lights

If you plan on operating your boat between sunset and sunrise, or during periods of reduced visibility (fog, rain, haze, etc.), vessels must be equipped with and exhibit navigation lights.

If your watercraft is less than 26 ft. long, the required lights are red and green sidelights visible from a distance of at least one mile away. The vessel must also be equipped with an all-round white light or both a masthead light and sternlight. These lights must be visible from a distance of at least two miles away, The all-round white light (or the masthead light) must be higher than the sidelights.

If your watercraft is 26 ft. or longer, your vessel must be equipped with red and green sidelights visible from a distance of at least one mile away. A masthead light and a sternlight visible from a distance of at least two miles away must also be on board. The masthead light must be higher than the sidelights.

Fire Extinguishers

According to The Handbook, all vessels, including PWCs, are required to have a Type B fire extinguisher on board if one of the following conditions exist:

  • Closed compartments under seats where portable fuel tanks may be stored
  • Closed storage compartments in which flammable or combustible materials may be stored
  • Double-bottoms not sealed to the hull or that are not completely filled with flotation material
  • Closed living spaces
  • Permanently installed fuel tanks

Approved types of fire extinguishers must read “Marine Type USCG-Approved” on the label. Extinguishers should be placed in an accessible area - not near the engine or in a compartment, but where they can be reached immediately. Ensure that you know how to operate them and inspect the extinguishers regularly to check that they are in working condition and are fully charged.

Sound-producing devices and visual distress signals

In periods of reduced visibility or whenever a vessel operator needs to signal his or her intentions or position, a sound-producing device is essential. The Handbook provides a table of what kind of device you need and where:

If on State Waters:

Vessel 16 feet up to 26 feet long and under engine power Whistle capable of producing a blast of two seconds or more and audible for at lease one-half mile is required.
Vessel 26 feet long or longer and under engine power Whistle capable of producing a blast of two seconds or more and audible for at least one mile is required.

If on Federally Controlled Waters:

Less than 39.4 feet long (includes PWC) Something such as handheld air horn, an athletic whistle, or an installed horn is required
39.4 feet long or longer Sound signal should be audible for one-half mile and should last for 4 to 6 seconds

Visual distress signals (VDSs) allow vessel operators to signal for help in the event of an emergency. VSDs are classified as day signals (visible in bright sunlight), night signals (visible at night), or both day and night signals.

Vessels on federally controlled waters, such as the Great Lakes, coastal waters, territorial seas, waters that are two miles wide or wider and are connected directly to one of the previously mentioned, must be equipped with VDSs that are USCG-approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible.

All vessels, regardless of length or type, are required to carry night signals when operating between sunset and sunrise.

On the water

Unlawful and dangerous operation

According to the handbook, Michigan law designates these dangerous operating practices as illegal:

  • Reckless operation of a vessel or reckless manipulation of water skis, surfboard, or similar device is defined as operation which disregards the safety or rights of others or endangers the person or property of others. Some examples are:
    • Weaving your vessel through congested waterway traffic or swerving at the last possible moment in order to avoid collision
    • Jumping the wake of another vessel unnecessarily close to the other vessel or when visibility around the other vessel is restricted.
    • Chasing, harassing, or disturbing wildlife with your vessel.
    • Causing damage from the wake of your vessel
  • Failure to regulate speed is operating a vessel at speeds that may cause danger to life or property of any other person or at speeds that will not permit you to bring your vessel to a safe stop. It is illegal to operate a vessel:
    • In excess of 55 mph unless you are at least one mile offshore on the Great Lakes or Lake St. Clair.
    • At a greater than “slow, no wake” speed when a person is in the bow of a vessel without proper seating
    • Faster than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions (weather, vessel traffic, etc.)
  • Improper distance is not maintaining a proper distance while operating a vessel or towing a person. to maintain a proper distance when you are operating at greater than “slow, no wake speed” (except in channels that are not posted), the vessel or persons being towed must not be within 100 feet of:
    • A shoreline (if operating in water less than three feet deep)
    • Any moored or anchored vessel
    • A dock or raft
    • Any marked swimming area or person(s) in the water
  • Improper distance for PWC means that, if operating at greater than “slow, no wake speed,” a PWC also must:
    • Stay at least 200 feet away from any Great Lakes shoreline
    • Not cross within 150 feet behind another vessel other than another PWC
  • Improper direction is defined as the failure to operate in a counterclockwise direction except in areas marked by well-defined channels or rivers
  • Boating in restricted areas is defined as operating within restricted area clearly marked by buoys, beacons, diver-down flags, etc.
  • Riding on the bow, gunwales, or transom is allowing passengers to ride on a motorboat in places where there may be a chance of falling overboard. While operating at greater than “slow, no wake speed,” persons on a motorboat may not sit, stand, or walk on any portion of a motorboat not designed for that purpose. This includes riding on the gunwale.
  • Insufficient equipment is operating a vessel that is not carrying, storing, maintaining, and using marine safety equipment on board the vessel as required by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).


I know it may surprise you, but I myself have been pulled over by the water police, it happens more than you realize, so make sure you are complying with all of the laws and regulations. The Handbook says this about enforcing the rules:

“The boating laws of Michigan are enforced by officers of the Law Enforcement Division of the Michigan DNR, county sheriff’s department, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and any other authorized law enforcement agency. They have the right to stop and board vessels in order to check for compliance with federal and state laws. The USCG has enforcement authority on federally controlled waters.”

The Handbook of Michigan Boating Laws and Responsibilities

Alcohol and drugs

Michigan law prohibits anyone from operating heavy machinery while under the influence of drugs or alcohol and watercrafts are no exception. Boating under the influence has similar repercussions as driving under the influence. If your blood alcohol content is determined to be 0.08% or greater, you are considered to be under the influence and can be subjected to the following penalties:

  • 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 great bodily injury or death of another person, he or she will be guilty of a felony.

By operating a motorboat on Michigan waters, you have consented to be tested for alcohol or drugs if arrested by a law enforcement official. It is also unlawful for the owner of a motorboat to allow anyone else to operate their motorboat if that person is under the influence. The Handbook says to just remember this simple rule: “don’t drink and boat!”

The Handbook gives extensive details about obstructing navigation, accidents and casualties, diver down flags, discharge of oil/other hazardous substances, discharge of sewage and waste, discharge of trash, specific requirements for PWCs and towing skiers, invasive aquatic plants and animals, boat fueling, fishing, and resources for local ordeals. For more information visit michigan.gov/dnr

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