Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Stayin’ alive this summer: Boating Safety 101

By Joe Shead
Contributing Writer


With another boating season upon us, it’s a good idea to review the rules pertaining to watercraft in Minnesota waters. Whether you’re tooling around in a paddleboard at your cabin or piloting an ore ship on Lake Superior, you must abide by Minnesota’s boating laws – all of which are intended to keep you and other boaters safe on the water.


Last year was one of the safest on the water, according to Lisa Dugan, DNR Enforcement recreation safety outreach coordinator. There were 10 boating fatalities in 2019.


That’s 10 too many, Dugan says, but is a vast improvement from when such record-keeping began, and since boating education and safety training took hold in the state.


“Boating fatalities were in the mid-50s for much of the 1960s and ’70s,” she said.


One of the best ways to learn the rules of the road is to take a boater safety course. It teaches the rules of boating to both youths and adults. In addition, it allows youths ages 12 to 17 to operate some motorboats and can give adults a discount on their boat insurance. You can learn about these courses and safe boating operation at


One of the most important pieces of boating safety equipment is your personal flotation device. Several styles are available. Type I and Type II are the orange collar-style PFDs, which will turn an unconscious victim face-up. Type III are vest style. Type IV includes throwable cushions and ring buoys. Type V includes some inflatable vests, float coats, and other specialized life preservers.


Dugan said none of those who died in boating accidents last year were wearing life jackets. Further, she said, all fatalities in the past two years have been male victims.


All children under 10 years of age are required to wear a properly fitted PFD any time the boat is underway. (The only exceptions are when in a cabin or below the top deck, when aboard a passenger vessel operated by a licensed captain or when on a boat anchored for swimming or diving.


Make sure the life vest fits the child. Each U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD will show the weight for which the PFD is rated. Remember, although the smallest vests are rated for 0 to 30 pounds, no PFD will really fit an infant well.


A readily accessible and wearable PFD is required for all watercraft, including boats, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, etc. A Type IV throwable is required for all boats 16 feet or longer (except canoes and kayaks). Personal watercraft riders and passengers must wear a PFDs at all times.


It’s a simple thing, Dugan said. “Make sure there’s a life jacket for everyone on board and make sure they fit properly,” she said, pointing out that need specifically for kids. 


Some life jacket now bear new labels, she added, but all acceptable ones should say “U.S. Coast Guard-approved.”


Auditory signaling devices are required for all motorboats 16 feet or longer. Motorboats 16 feet long to less than 26 feet must be equipped with a mouth-, hand-, or power-operated whistle or horn capable of producing a continuous sound for 2 seconds and audible for at least one-half mile.


Motorboats 26 feet long to less than 40 feet must be equipped with a hand- or power-operated whistle or horn capable of producing a continuous sound for 2 seconds and audible for at least one mile.


Navigations lights should also be in good working order. Motorboats must display navigation lights when underway from sunset to sunrise.


Motorboats less than 40 feet long while underway from sunset to sunrise and sailboats operating under motor power must display:


• Either separate 122.5-degree red and green sidelights or a combination 225-degree red and green bow light.


• A 360-degree white stern light. When at anchor, only the 360-degree white light is necessary.


Nonmotorized boats must contain a white lantern or flashlight. The light should be strong enough so other boats around the horizon can see it at least 2 miles away, and the light must be displayed in sufficient time to avoid a collision with another watercraft. Canoes, kayaks, sailboats, etc., that are operated under power must follow the lighting requirements for motorboats.


In addition, accessory lighting, such as docking lights, spotlights, or accent lights must not impact navigation light visibility.


Fire extinguishers are yet another required safety feature for most motorized watercraft. Motorboats carrying or using fuel are required to have a Type B USCG-approved fire extinguisher on board.


For boats under 26 feet with enclosed engine, fuel tanks, or other spaces, one size B-I fire extinguisher is required.


For boats 26 feet up to 40 feet, two size B-I or one size B-II is required.


For boats 40 feet up to and including 65 feet, three size B-III or one size B-II and one size B-I fire extinguishers are required. For boats over 65 feet, three size B-II fire extinguishers are required.


Also, motorboats carrying or using gasoline in any compartment must be equipped with an efficient ventilating system. Gasoline engines (other than outboards) must be equipped with a USCG-approved backfire flame arrester on the carburetor.


Here are a couple of final thoughts. On Lake Superior only, visual distress signals must be carried by operators of motorboats 16 feet or longer. They do not need to be carried by open sailboats of less than 26 feet or nonmotorized crafts, except they must be carried by all watercraft when operating at night. VDS include flares, electric distress lights and 3-foot by 3-foot orange distress flags (only visible during the day).


Boaters should also be aware that a high number of boating accidents are caused by intoxicated boaters. Operating a boat when intoxicated carries the same penalties as operating a car while impaired on a roadway. Just as with autos, a boat operator with a blood-alcohol content level of 0.08% or above is considered intoxicated.


“Make sure you have a sober driver,” Dugan said.


Boating is a great way to enjoy our 10,000 lakes. Most boating rules are designed to keep you, your family, and other boaters safe on water. Learn the rules and abide by them. Take a boater safety course and always carry the Minnesota boating regulations with you on the water.

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