Family on a boatAccording to Discover Boating, Michainga ranks as the second largest state in terms of number of boats with more than 1,000,000 registered vessels. This should come as no surprise as we Michaiganders are blessed with the Great Lakes, thousands of inland lakes, and countless rivers and steams. I'm sure all of you reading this either own a boat or know someone who does.

For those amoung you who do own a boat, there are easy steps to take to ensure that you provide the most fun and safe experience for your passangers while ensuring that you don't expose yourself to greater liability than need be.

Getting your boat back in the water after a long off season is exciting, but before you push off from the dock, have a checklist that you run through both at the beginning of the season and before every trip.

First Checklist of the Season:

  • Register your vessel. 

All boats over 20 ft in length and all boats that have permanently installed engines must be titled and registered with the State of Michigan. At the beginning of every season, make sure that your craft is properly registered and the necessary stickers are in place and clearly visible.

  • Are you covered?

Make sure that you have all your bases covered. Don’t just rely on your homeowner’s policy to cover your boat. If you wait to talk to your insurance agent until an accident happens, it is probably too late. Most homeowners’ policies provide very minimal coverage for watercraft, both in terms of damage and liability coverage. The best practice is to talk to your agent and take out a separate boater’s policy that will provide greater coverage for boat specific claims.

  • Know your boat.

Once you check your policies, know the specs of your vessel. Mandatory safety and equipment requirements vary based on the size and horsepower of your particular craft. For example, if your boat is longer than 26 ft, your vessel must be equipped with red and green navigation lights that are visible from at least a mile away. For a full list of spec specific rules and regulations, check out the DNR boater’s handbook available at

  • Check your equipment.

Before you leave the dock, do a full run-through of your boat and all your equipment. Don’t run your engine outside of the water but check to make sure that your batteries are charged, the engine runs, you have a full tank of gas, the bilge pump works, and all your accessory switches work.

Once you run through the boat itself, next make sure all of your equipment is in working order. As a general rule, have enough life jackets for the max capacity of your boat. Check to make sure that your anchor is properly attached, the line is clear of kinks and knots, and is easily accessible. Secure all buoys, have a docking boat hook on board, and don’t forget the first aid kit. Having a small stock of essentials like bandages and sunscreen will come in handy, trust me.

Checklist before each trip:

  • Have a plan.

Whether you’re out on Lake Michigan or just at your local lake, have a plan. Know how long you plan to be on the water and make sure you have the necessary equipment and supplies for that specific trip. Make sure all of your passengers know the plan so they can plan accordingly. You don’t want to learn that someone has diabetes and left their insulin in the car when you’re out in the middle of the lake and can’t quickly get back to where you launched.

You should also know basic information about the body of water you will be navigating your boat on. Almost every inland lake has no wake areas, know where they are in advance. No wake areas are extremely important, they protect landowners’ property, they protect boats from each other, and often times you can expect to see people swimming or fishing in these areas. If you don’t know where the no-wake zones are, be aware! If you can, take a slower lap around and look for signs and areas where boats are moving slowly. Bottom line, respect the lake and all its inhabitants.

  • Lifejackets.

Know your passengers and make sure you have the right life jackets. All vessels must be equipped with a PFD for each person on board or being towed. A vessel that is less than 16 feet long, or is a canoe or kayak, must have either a wearable lifejacket or a throwable personal floatation device for each person on board.

All children under 6 years of age must wear a USCG-approved life jacket when riding on the open deck of any vessel while underway. As much as your kiddos fuss, it’s non-negotiable.

If you’re pulling a tube, water skier, or wake boarder, make sure whoever you’re pulling has a working, wearable USCG compliant life jacket. As an aside, always have a spotter anytime you’re pulling someone in your wake.

  • Know who can operate your craft.

We’ve all been there, the teenager asks to drive, the friend of a friend says he owns a boat and offers to take the wheel. But who can legally operate your boat? Knowing ahead of time can save you a world of pain.

Kids under 12 cannot operate a boat powered by a motor that has more than 35 horsepower under any conditions. At 14, the teenager must have completed boaters’ safety and be accompanied by their legal guardian, or someone over 21 who has been appointed. Regardless of how old the child is, the best practice is to only allow those who have their boaters safety certificate to operate your boat, and only under supervision. 

It's ultimately up to you as to what adults you let drive your boat. Just know, as the boat owner you can potentially be held liable for the actions of the boat operator. Alcohol limits largely track alcohol laws regarding operating vehicles, any blood alcohol level of .08 or higher is considered intoxicated and subject to disciplinary action.

All operators must refrain from reckless activity such as weaving through vessels or congested waterway traffic, jumping in the wake of another craft, or causing damage from your crafts wake. All boat operators must regulate speed fit for the conditions, maintain proper distance of 100 feet from shorelines, anchored vessels, docks, and rafts. Lastly, all traffic around a lake must proceed counterclockwise. Make sure anyone driving your boat knows these rules before you let them get behind the wheel.      

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