Keeping Out of Legal Hot Water While Boating in Minnesota

As Labor Day weekend approaches, likely the last big boating weekend of the season, it is important to keep a few key boating-related laws in mind.

Drinking and Boating

First, it is illegal to operate or be in physical control of a motorboat in operation while impaired by drugs or alcohol.[1]  Many of the same consequences apply to doing so as to operating any other motorized vehicle while impaired, which are by no means lenient.  Depending on a number of factors, they may include incarceration, loss of your motorboat operating privileges and/or driver’s license, fines, a permanent criminal record, and/or increased insurance rates.  Further, it is a misdemeanor for an owner or other person having charge or control of a motorboat to authorize or allow an individual the person knows or has reason to believe is under the influence of alcohol or another substance to operate the motorboat in operation.[2]

However, Minnesota’s open bottle law – which prohibits consumption of alcohol or possession of open alcohol bottles in a motor vehicle upon a street or highway – does not apply to motorboats.[3]

Boat licensure

With limited exceptions, all motorized and non-motorized watercraft must be licensed by the Department of Natural Resources.[4]  Notable exceptions include: (1) duck boats during duck hunting season, rice boats during harvest season, and seaplanes[5]; (2) a non-motorized watercraft nine feet in length or less; and watercraft from another country, or currently registered in another state, and not kept in Minnesota for more than 90 consecutive days.  When you register your boat, be sure to know its length, manufacturer, type of hull material (wood, metal, or plastic), type of propulsion, model, year, serial or hull identification number (HIN) and have a sales receipt that shows you have paid the sales tax.

Flotation devices

On all inland and border waters of the State of Minnesota, all boats must have a readily accessible, wearable personal flotation device (PFD) (life jacket) for each person on board.  Throwable devices, such as buoyant cushions, are no longer acceptable.  Minnesota law also requires children under 10-years-old to wear a life jacket on board all boats, with some exceptions, and PFDs must be worn by all people on personal watercraft (e.g., wave runners, jet skis)[6].  Further, on boats 16-feet or longer (except canoes and kayaks) there must also be at least one throwable device, such as a buoyant cushion or ring buoy, immediately available.  See for more detailed information on acceptable PFDs.

Operator age restrictions

If you are out with a young boater who wishes to take the wheel, be sure to know the applicable age restrictions.[7]  For all minors, there is no restriction for motorboats with 25 horsepower or less.  For children less than 12-years-old, there must be someone 21 or up within reach of the controls for motorboats with 25 to 75 horsepower (unless there is an emergency), and these youngsters may not operate any motorboat with more than 75 horsepower.  Children 12 to 17 operating a motorboat with more than 25 horsepower must have either a watercraft operator’s permit or someone 21 or up within reach of the controls.  As for personal watercraft, except in case of emergency, children less than 13 may not operate them, 13-year-olds may drive with someone at least 21 on board or if he/she has a watercraft operator’s permit and is visually supervised by someone at least 21.[8]  A 14- to 17-year-old may operate personal watercraft if he/she has someone at least 21 on board or a watercraft operator’s permit.

A child may obtain a permit by successfully completing the DNR’s home study boating course, which may be done online at


Enforcement of Minnesota’s boat and water safety laws rests with the DNR’s conservation officers and the county sheriffs.[9]  All state and county watercraft primarily used for enforcement will be marked on both sides. On waters under federal jurisdiction, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Park Service enforce federal boating regulations. If a sheriff or conservation officer observes a watercraft in violation of Minnesota Statutes or rules, he or she may stop you, inspect (without boarding), and detain you, for a reasonable time.  Violation of a boat and water safety statute or rule is generally a misdemeanor, with exceptions for repeat violations or more serious offenses.

Cadem Law Group, PLLC, wishes you and your family a happy and safe holiday season on the lakes!

[1] Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, Subd. 1a (2006). “Motorboat in operation” does not include a motorboat that is anchored, beached, or securely fastened to a dock or other permanent mooring or a motorboat that is being rowed or propelled by other than mechanical means.  Minn. Stat. § 169A.03, Subd. 14.

[2] Minn. Stat. § 86B.331 (2004).

[3] Minn. Stat. § 169A.35 (2006).

[4] Minn. Stat. § 86B.301 (2004).

[5] Minn. Stat. § 86B.005, Subd. 18 (2004); Minn. Stat. § 86B.301 (2004).

[6] Minn. Stat. § 86B.313, Subd. 1 (2004).

[7] Minn. Stat. § 86B.305 (2004).

[8] Minn. Stat. § 86B.313 (2004).

[9] Minn. Stat. § 86B.801 (2004).