Everything you need to know about setting sail on Michigan's waters

It's called the "water wonderland" for good reason. In part because of its tough winters, Michigan is all about lake life during warm months, and it's got dozens of lakes – not to mention shoreline. Take a break from the hustle of Detroit and head to the nearest body of water when the urge to go boating strikes. The state doesn't require boaters to be licensed. However, the rules are a little stricter if you want to operate a personal watercraft (PWC), like a JetSki.

Q: What are Michigan's laws around boating licenses?

A: If you're 21 or older, you don't need a license in order to operate a boat in Michigan waters. A person younger than 21 may drive a boat, but only if he obtains a boating safety certificate and brings it onto the boat. Even kids under 12 can drive boats under 35 horsepower, but with more restrictions. To drive a boat powered by more than 6 horsepower, an under-12 must obtain a boating safety certificate and be supervised by a person who's at least 16. Kids can operate boats under 6 horsepower with no restrictions.

Q: What about PWC laws?

A: A PWC is generally defined as any type of motorized watercraft that you sit or stand on. JetSkis and Sea-Doos are examples of popular PWCs. They're fun to ride, but can be dangerous if you don't know how to operate them correctly. That's why Michigan requires PWC operators 16 and older who were born after December 31, 1978 to obtain and carry a boating safety certificate. If you were born on or before December 31, 1978, you can operate a PWC without restrictions.

Kids 14 and under can't operate PWCs at all, and 14- and 15-year-olds must be supervised by a parent or legal guardian.

Q: Why 1978?

A: It seems arbitrary now, but that was the date chosen when the law was first created in the '90s.


Michigan officials are strict about enforcing the state's laws against operating a boat or PWC while intoxicated. If you're caught breaking that law, you'll likely be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

Q: How do I get a boating safety certificate?

A: It's pretty easy. To get this certification, take on online course called Boat Ed. You'll learn about all aspects of safely operating a boat or PWC in Michigan, including what to do in an emergency and how to navigate. There are unit quizzes along the way. You must score at least 70 percent on those quizzes to advance.

At the end of the course, you'll take an exam. You must score at least 80 percent on the exam in order to be certified. You're allowed to retake the test as many times as you need to in order to pass. When you pass, you can print your certificate and start boating right away.

Start to finish, the course takes most people around three hours. It costs $29.50 to get certified, and you have to pay at the beginning of the course. You don't have to be a Michigan resident to get certified.

Q: What are Michigan's life jacket laws?

A: Anyone riding on a PWC must wear a life jacket. Only children under 6 must wear life jackets while riding in the open deck of a boat. However, every boat must be equipped with a life jacket for each passenger, and you should wear yours at all times even though it's not required. U.S. Coast Guard statistics suggest that 90 percent of people who drown in water accidents would have survived if they were wearing life jackets. You never know when an accident will happen, so buckle up.

Q: How can I rent a boat or PWC?

A: More than 40 Michigan state parks offer boat rentals, and many private companies also rent boats and PWCs along Michigan's shore line. Rules and regulations vary from company to company. But because the state doesn't require boat operators to be licensed, you can typically rent a small boat with nothing more than ID and a credit card.

Be warned, though, that you're responsible for what happens to your passengers, other people out on the water and the boat itself. Just because the state allows you to rent and drive a boat doesn't mean you should do it if you have no prior experience. You can always enjoy the water as part of an organized boat tour.