Here’s what you need to know about Wisconsin boating regulations
If you live in or visit Wisconsin and are an avid boater (or even just love a recreational day on the water every now and then), you’re in luck. Wisconsinites are fortunate to have plenty of options for a day at sail—from the shores of Lake Superior or Lake Michigan to Lake Winnebago via Fox River from Green Bay or any number of smaller lakes and rivers throughout the state.
While you won’t encounter some of the hazards that you might face on the ocean, the Great Lakes have currents, deep waters and their own sets of hazards that could lead to boat accidents if you’re not careful.
Boating can be safe and fun, but it’s also important to know your legal rights and responsibilities when boating on Wisconsin waters.
Common types of boating accidents
Collisions with other boats or watercraft
Collisions are common, particularly when there’s a lot of boat traffic and inexperienced boaters on the water. Collisions can happen because of:
- Inability to control the boat
- Negligence or recklessness
When boats collide, it can result in serious injuries. Often, people on a boat are standing or sitting on the deck or in the cabin, but they are not restrained. By contrast, when you ride in a car, you’d normally have a seat belt that protects you from flying around the interior of the vehicle if there’s an impact. However, with no restraints on a boat, passengers could be thrown overboard or thrown around the boat and suffer from bruises, fractures, head injuries, spine injuries, broken bones or other types of injuries.
Flooding and swamping accidents
The greatest danger in a flooding or swamping accident is when inexperienced swimmers or those without life jackets wind up in the water unexpectedly. This situation is even worse in the cold or if other dangerous weather conditions are present.
An underwater landmass or sandbar might not be visible to a boater. A boat can become stuck or grounded if it hits one of these obstacles.
Collision with a stationary object
A buoy, rock or other debris can pose a significant danger if a boater isn’t paying attention or loses control of the boat.
Water skiing accidents
Water skiing can be great fun. And since Wisconsin boaters can remain close to shore or in bays where there aren’t a lot of waves, it can be safe. However, the U.S. Coast Guard has ranked water skiing as the 5th most common type of boating accident.
There’s 1 distinction that separates water skiing from other types of accidents:
It’s the only type of accident that has more injuries than reported accidents.
In other words, a reportable accident doesn’t need to happen in order for a water skier to be injured. The skier could hit the water at a bad angle and be injured, fall off the skis and drown, or hit an object or the boat. A boat driver should be trained to pull a water skier—it’s a different set of skills than regular driving.
Federally controlled waters
Wisconsin boaters might be sailing on Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, which are federally controlled waters. This includes coastal areas, territorial seas and water connected directly to those areas where the water is less than 2 miles wide. This could include areas within the Mississippi, Wisconsin, St. Croix, Wolf and Fox rivers.
If you’re sailing on federally controlled waters, you’re subject to regulation by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Wisconsin boating regulations
Wisconsin boating regulations and safety requirements include:
Your recreational vessel must have a Wisconsin Certificate of Number unless it’s a sailboat 12 feet long or fewer ( that doesn’t have a motor), a manually propelled vessel without a motor or sail, or a vessel that’s registered in another state and is in Wisconsin waters for fewer than 60 consecutive days.
Operation (age restrictions)
The operator of a motorboat in Wisconsin must be:
- 10 years old or older.
- If the operator is 10 or 11 years old, they must be accompanied by a parent, guardian or someone at least 18 years old who is designated by the parent or guardian, and the adult must have a valid boating safety certificate or be born in or before 1988.
- If the operator is 12-15 years old, they can operate a motorboat under the same rules as a 10- or 11-year-old, or they must have completed a boating safety course.
- If the operator is 16 or older, they must follow the same rules as above, or they must be accompanied by a person 18 or older who has a valid boating safety certificate.
- Personal flotation devices (PFD). There must be at least 1 USCG-approved wearable flotation device or life PFD for each person aboard the vessel. Children under 13 must wear a PFD at all times in an open vessel on federally controlled waters. Anyone using a personal watercraft must wear a PFD.
- Throwable PFDs. There must be at least 1 throwable on board a vessel that’s 16 feet long or longer.
- Sound-producing devices. A sound device is recommended but not required on Wisconsin waters but is required on federally controlled waters. A vessel that’s fewer than 39.4 feet long must have a sound device, such as a handheld air horn, athletic whistle, etc., but may not rely on a human voice. A longer vessel must have a sound device that’s audible for at least half a mile with 4- to 6-second duration, as well as a bell with a clapper. A boat may not have a siren unless it’s a safety or official vessel.
- Fire extinguishers. A vessel must have a fire extinguisher if the boat contains an inboard/outboard or inboard engine, closed compartments, closed living spaces, closed compartments or false floors, or permanently installed fuel tanks.
- Navigation lights.
- Power-driven vessel: If shorter than 65.5 feet, there must be red and green sidelights visible from at least 2 miles away. If the vessel is less than 39.4 feet, it must be visible at least 1 mile away. There must also be an all-around white light or both a masthead light and stern light visible from at least 2 miles away.
- An unpowered vessel that is shorter than 65.6 feet must have red and green sidelights visible from 2 miles away or 1 mile away if the vessel is 39.4 feet or shorter.
- If it’s fewer than 23 feet, the vessel must have at least 1 lantern or flashlight with a white light.
- Even when moored or anchored, a vessel must have a white light visible from all directions when 200 feet from shore between sunset and sunrise.
- Ventilation systems. Any gasoline-powered vessel must have at least 2 ventilation ducts with cowls to remove fumes.
- Backfire flame arrestors. These prevent the ignition of gasoline vapors if the engine backfires.
- Mufflers and noise level limits. An internal combustion engine must be muffled in order to avoid excessive noise. A vessel may not exceed 86 dBA.
- Visual distress signal (VDS). You may not carry more than 3 expired pyrotechnic VDSs. However, a vessel should be equipped with a dated VDS. These can include handheld orange smoke pyrotechnics, floating orange smoke pyrotechnics, orange flags, electric lights, red meteor pyrotechnics or red flare pyrotechnics.
Operating a vessel on Wisconsin waters
The following are illegal under Wisconsin law:
- Negligent or reckless operation of a vessel, including jumping the wake of a vessel towing a person using personal watercraft, operating in a prohibited area, weaving through traffic, creating a hazardous wake or wave, steering and swerving at the last second (playing “chicken”), chasing or disturbing wildlife or displaying blue lights that could be confused for an emergency vessel.
- Allowing a person to ride or sit on gunwales, tops or sides of seatbacks, or on the deck over the bow.
- Overloading beyond the vessel’s capacity.
- Overpowering, or adding more power than needed.
- Speeding or failing to obey “no wake speed” areas.
- Obstructing navigation of another vessel.
- Alcohol and drugs. You may not operate a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs or if your blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 percent or higher.
Wisconsin boating accident laws
If you are involved in a boating accident in Wisconsin, you must do the following:
- If the accident resulted in death, injury or damage to property that could exceed $2,000, you must stop the vessel, assist anyone who is injured and provide your contact information to anyone else involved.
- If the accident resulted in the death or disappearance of a person, an injury, or property damage that could exceed $2,000, you must make a verbal report to a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officer immediately and submit a written report within 10 days.
Wisconsin personal injury lawsuits
How Wisconsin handles personal injury liability, generally, will affect the outcome of a claim if you’re involved in a boating accident.
A person who suffers an injury could recover compensation for their costs if the injury was the result of someone else’s negligence.
Negligence is when an action or inaction results in an accident that was reasonably foreseeable. In other words, the negligent party should have reasonably been able to anticipate that their action could cause someone to be injured.
First, you need to determine who is at fault for the accident. It could be the operator of the boat on which you’re a passenger, the owner of the boat, or another boat’s owner or operator, for example.
Then you need to prove that the accident or injury happened because of that person’s negligence. What’s tricky with boating accidents is that sometimes an accident could be the result of weather conditions, water conditions, a strong wake or wave caused by a different boat, or some other reason that’s not within anyone’s control. If the defendant (the person being sued) took all appropriate steps to maintain safety and acted responsibly and an accident still happened—then it’s a “true” accident, and no one is to blame.
It’s also important to make sure that you are following rules for boating safety and applicable Wisconsin laws. In Wisconsin, if the plaintiff (injured person) is 51 percent liable for the accident or more, they cannot recover any damages.
If a plaintiff is partially responsible for the accident, their damage award would be reduced by the amount for which they are at fault.
Tips on preventing or handling a boating emergency
The DNR sets forth a list of tips for preventing boating-related injuries.
You can prevent a passenger from falling overboard by prohibiting sitting on unprotected areas like the gunwale, bow, seatbacks or other areas that aren’t designed for sitting. If you have a fishing boat with a carpeted deck, don’t stand or sit on the deck when the boat is moving faster than idle speed.
Don’t move about the boat when underway or lean out of the boat.
If someone does fall overboard, reduce speed immediately and toss the person a throwable PFD. Pull the boat alongside the person, and approach them from downwind or into the current, whichever is stronger. Turn off the engine, and pull the person back on board over the stern to keep the boat balanced.
It’s likely to be several degrees colder out on the water than it is on land. And, if you fall overboard, the risk is even greater.
You should dress in several layers of clothes under your PFD or wear a wetsuit or drysuit. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering and blue lips or nails. You can eventually fall into a coma or even die of exposure.
If you can put on a PFD, do so. Floating without excessively moving will keep you warmer, and the PFD, itself, can insulate your body. Excess movement uses energy and you can lose body heat. If you can, get as much of your body out of the water as possible. Protect your areas of heat loss by bringing your arms to your sides and knees to your chest. If there are multiple people in the water, you can huddle together to keep each other warm.
Capsizing or swamping
To reduce your risk of capsizing, you should:
- Avoid overloading your boat.
- Keep a balanced load.
- Slow down when turning.
- Secure the anchor line to the bow, not the stern.
- Avoid rough water and bad weather.
If you capsize:
- Stay with the boat.
- Try to climb back into or onto the boat.
- If the boat has floated away, remain calm and wait for help (if you’re wearing a PFD). If you’re not wearing a PFD, look for a buoyant item as a flotation device. If the water is cold, float rather than tread if you’re awaiting help.
What to do if you’re injured in a Wisconsin boating accident
A boating accident can be complicated, particularly if there are questions about whether it’s a state or federal jurisdiction (for instance, in the Great Lakes). It can also be complex to determine liability, particularly if weather or other factors were involved.
If you were injured while riding on someone else’s boat, they might also try to reduce their liability by pointing to your actions. If you were sitting in an unsafe area on the boat, not wearing your PFD properly or engaged in some other behavior that could increase your risk of becoming injured, all of those factors could come into play in a lawsuit.
That’s why you need a lawyer. Your lawyer will work to minimize your liability for your injuries, prove a defendant’s liability, explore weather conditions and other factors if necessary, hire experts for accident reconstruction or other evidentiary purposes, and determine the amount of damages (money) you can be compensated for your injuries.