Reprinted from:

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Law Enforcement


The regulations listed below are for Wisconsin. Other states regulations may be different.

The Law Enforcement Mission
To protect, enhance and promote the safe and wise use of our natural resources, Wisconsin Conservation Wardens shall:

  1. Ensure the right of all persons to safely use, share and enjoy Wisconsin's natural resources through firm, fair and effective law enforcement
  2. Educate and inform citizens of the responsible use of Wisconsin's natural resource and the application of natural resource laws.
  3. In partnership with other, educate the public in the safe and responsible use of boats.
  4. Lead the citizens of Wisconsin in maintaining the tradition of ethical use and stewardship of our natural resource.

Wisconsin's Personal Watercraft Law
Personal Watercraft (PWC) are classified as Class A (less than 16 feet in length) inboard boats. All PWC must be registered and display valid registration decals and registration numbers on the forward half of both sides of the craft and abide by all boating regulations, plus the following specific regulations.
1. No persons operate a PWC from sunset to sunrise.
2. All persons riding a PWC must wear a PFD of the proper size and type (type I, II, III, or V).
3. No persons may operate a PWC equipped by the manufacturer with a lanyard without the lanyard attached to the operator.
4. No person may sell a PWC manufacturer after 1/1/93 unless equipped with a lanyard or self- circling device.
5. No one under 12 may operate a PWC. (Rental age limit is 16.)
6. Persons at least 12 but under 16 must be in possession of a valid boating safety student certificate (issued under s. 30.74(1)) to operate a PWC. (Parental supervision is not a substitute for a boating safety certificate as with other motorboats. PWC operators must have a certificate.)
7. Rental PWC:

  • No one under 16 may rent a PWC.
  • Rental agent must provide PFD of proper size and type.
  • Rental agent must provide renters with instruction on PWC operator unless the renter holds a valid boating safety student certificate (s.30.74(1)) or has previous experience operating a PWC.

8. There is no towing of persons engaged in water skiing, aquaplaning, or similar activities unless the PWC is designed to seat 3 people.
9. PWC towing of stranded or disabled boats is only allowed if speeds do not exceed slow-no-wake.
10. Operation of a PWC within 100' of the following:

  • Operation does not exceed a slow-no-wake.
  • Neither boat is involved in any type of water skiing or similar activity.

11. It is illegal to operate a PWC within 100' of the following:

  • Another boat towing a skier or person engaged in similar activity.
  • The tow rope of another motorboat towing a skier or person engaged in similar activity.
  • A person involved in skiing or a similar activity.

12. No person operating any type of motorboat (including PWC) that is towing persons engaged in water skiing, aquaplaning, or similar activity may operate within 100' of any occupied anchored boat, any personal watercraft, any marked swimming area, or public boat landing.
13. No persons who are water skiing or engaged in similar activity may get within 100 feet of a personal watercraft or allow the tow rope to get within 100 feet of a personal watercraft.

Rules 11-13 do not apply to waterski pickup or drop areas that are marked with regulatory marked and that are open to operators of personal watercraft and to persons and motorboats engaged in water skiing.

                                     Boat Registration
No person may operate, and no owner may give permission for the operator of any boat unless the boat is covered by a valid certificate of number issued by the Wisconsin DNR.  Federally documented boats must be registered in the State of Wisconsin unless they are exempted by law.  They shall also display type registration year decal is not displayed a Wisconsin registration number unless the decal is not displayed by the documented name. Then the number and decal shall be displayed.

Exemptions from Registration (Watercraft)
1. Sailboats 12 feet and under without motor.
2. Manually propelled and not equipped with a motor or sail.
3. Covered by a valid certificate from another state of federal government when used in this state not more than 60 consecutive days or if this state is not the state of principal use.
4. Licensed documented fishing vessels.
5. Sailboards.
A boat present in this state is exempt for a period of 10 days for the express purpose of competing in a race sanctioned by a government subdivision.

Boat Certificates of Number
How to apply: Requests for boat registration and/or titling are to be submitted on DNR forms available at DNR field stations, marinas, and county clerks' offices.

Certificate of number or decal are issued for a two year period commencing April 1 and expiring on March 31.  Transfer of the ownership of a boat terminates the certificate of number and title. Upon receipt of the required fee and application, the Department will issue a new certificate of number and/or title for the boat. The number and title will remain with the boat unless expired.  Duplicate certificates, title, and decals shall be issued for a fee upon the receipt of a proper application stating that the original certificate, titles or decals have been lost or destroyed.

Display of Identification Number and Decals: Upon being issued certificate of number and decal, the owner of a boat shall display the issued number on each side of the forward half of the boat. Once the certificate of number is received, the owner of the boat must purchase adhesive number and letters or paint the numbers and letters on the boat using block letters not less than 3" high and in a contrasting color to the surface on which they are applied. Display the registration number with at least a 2" space or hyphen between the letters and center 4 numbers. It is the responsibility of the owner to be sure that the registration number is clearly visible and maintained in legible condition at all times. Place the registration decal (indicates the date through which the registration is valid) in line with and 3" from the registration number, toward the stern. In Wisconsin, registration expires on March 31 of the year shown on the decal.

Sailboat numbers and decals shall be affixed in the same manner as outlined above.

Federally documented boats shall display the decals on each side of the name on the transom.

It is unlawful for any other number or decals to be painted attached or otherwise displayed on either side of the forward half of any registration boat.

It is unlawful to operate or use any registered boat without having the certificate of the number available for inspection at all times on such boat.

A boat owner who changes residence shall within 15 days notify the DNR of both the old and the new address.

Transfer of Ownership or Abandonment: The Purchaser of a boat shall within 15 days and prior to operate make application on forms furnished by the DNR. The previous owner's certificate and title shall accompany the application.


It is unlawful to transfer the number designated by the DNR from one boat to another.

The Owner of a numbered boat shall notify the DNR within 15 days after a boat has been destroyed or abandoned and shall return the registration certificate to the Department at: DNR-Boat Registration, Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.

Lighting Equipment Requirements
Any person operating a boat from sunset to sunrise must carry and use the following lighting equipment. Click to see Light Table

PWC are specifically prohibited from operating between sunset and sunrise.

White lights must be visible for 2 miles on a dark, clear night. Combination or colored lights must be visible foe 1 mile.

All combination lamps shall be red to port and green to starboard and also fixed that each side of the combined lamp throws a light from directly ahead to 2 points abaft the beam on its respective sides.

Every moored, anchored and drifting boat and other fixed and floating structures, outside of designated anchorages or beyond 200 feet from the shoreline shall be lighted from sunset to sunrise by a white light visible all around the horizon.

Auxiliary: Sail Alone-Auxiliary equipped sailboats operating under sail alone under 26 feet in length are required to display combination red and green lights forward and carry ready at hand a flashlight or lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to avoid collision.

Auxiliary: Sail Alone-Auxiliary equipped sailboats operating under sail alone under 26 feet in length are required to display separate ten point sidelights visible 1 mile and carry ready at hand a flashlight or lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to avoid collision.

All other boats propelled by a muscular power and every sailboat not equipped with a motor underway from sunset to sunrise shall carry ready at hand a flashlight or lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to avoid collision.

Optional lighting Requirements-Any boat may carry and exhibit the lights required by the federal regulations for preventing collisions at sea.

Equipment Requirements
It is unlawful for any person to operate any boat unless equipped properly and no owner shall rent such boat to any person unless such boat is properly equipped at rental for for then existing conditions.
Fire Extinguisher: It is unlawful to operate a motorboat, except outboards of open construction, without fire extinguisher of the size, type and number specified.
"Open construction"-Open construction means boat construction of a type that will not allow the entrapment of explosive or flammable gasses or vapors.
Such fire extinguisher shall be kept in condition for immediate and effective use and shall be so placed as to be readily accessible.
Flame Arrester: It is unlawful to operate a gasoline powered inboard boat unless the carburetor is filled with a Coast Guard approved flame arrester.
Bilge Ventilator: It is unlawful to operate a boat, except those of open construction, using a liquid volatile fuel unless equipped with an efficient natural or mechanical bilge ventilator.
Toilets: It is unlawful to maintain or operate any boat equipped with a toilet on the inland or outlying waters of this state unless such toilet is sealed or otherwise rendered inoperative or meets the specifications of the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations. Boat toilet requirements may be obtained from the DNR.
Boat Battery: It shall be unlawful to operate a motor driven boat equipped with a storage battery unless such battery is secured against shifting. Such battery shall be equipped nonconductive terminal shields to prevent accidental shorting of battery terminals. Both positive and negative terminals need to be covered. (Covered battery box with strap works best.)
Mufflers: No person may operate a motorboat without a muffler or one which exceeds noise level standards (86 db on "A" weighted scale) with a muffler.
Capacity Plates: The majority of boats manufactured or offered for sale in this state shall have affixed thereto a capacity plate. Never exceed the maximum limits of your boat. To do so is to endanger your life and that of you passengers. It is also accepted evidence that you are operating your boat unlawfully.
Personal Floatation Devices-PFD's
The operator of every boat must supply the required number and type of Personal Devices that are described below. In addition, the wearable Personal Flotation Devices must be the correct size for the intended wearer.

Boats: It is unlawful to operate any boat (including inflatables and innertubes) unless at least one of the following type PFD's of the proper size is available for each person on board:
Type I = Wearable Type PFD's           Type II = Wearable Type PFD's
Type III = Wearable Type PFD's        Type V = Must be worn to be legal when boat is underway

In addition to the above, each boat 16 feet or longer except canoes or kayaks must have at least 1 Type IV PFD--Buoyant cushion or ring buoy on board.
ALL PFD'S MUST be placed in the boat so that they are readily accessible.

Personal Watercraft (PWC): It is unlawful to operate a PWC unless each person is wearing a type I, II, III, or type V personal flotation device.
Wind Surfers: Are not required to obey the PWC law, but are encouraged to do so.

''Approved'' Personal Flotation Devices-PFD's
An approved PFD is one which meets the safety standards established by the U.S. Coast Guard, has a Coast Guard approval stamped or sewn on it, and is in serviceable condition (ripped, damaged or unserviceable PFD's are not legal). All PFD's must be of the appropriate size for the person for whom it is intended, to be legal. They must be readily accessible for use.
Type I-PFD-Life Preserver- This is a jacket type worn like a coat and designed to turn an unconscious person's face up in the water.
Type II-PFD-Buoyant Vest- Horse collar type and worn like a bib.
Type III-PFD-Special Purpose Device- Ski vests, fisherman's vest, float-coats.

Type IV-PFD-Buoyant Cushion, Ring Buoy- These are throw able devices and are not designed to be worn. They must be immediately available.
Type V-PFD-Special Use Device- A Coast Guard approved Type V PFD may be carried in lieu of a Type I-III PFD, if the Type V device is approved for the activity in which the craft is being used. (Note: Type V devices are approved for specific and restricted uses and may have to be worn to be approved.)

Capsizing and falls overboard are the leading cause of boating fatalities in Wisconsin.

Traffic Rules
Meeting: When 2 motorboats are approaching each other from head on, and head or so nearly so as to involve risk of collision, each boat shall bear to the right and pass the other boat of ins left side.

Right-of-Way: When 2 motorboats are approaching each other entirely by sail or muscle power are proceeding in such a direction as to involve risk of collision, the motor boat shall yield the right-of-way.
Overtaking: A boat may overtake and pass another boat on either side if it can be done with safety, but the overtaking boat shall always yield the right-of-way to the boat being overtaken.  A boat granted the right-of-way shall maintain its course and speed, unless to do so would possibly result in a collision.

Speed Restrictions
It is unlawful to operate a motorboat at a speed that is greater than reasonable and prudent under the existing conditions. The speed shall be so controlled as to avoid colliding with any object, person or conveyance lawful in or on the water.

Motorboats may not be operated at speed greater than "slow-no-wake' on lakes 50 acres or less having public access, except when such lakes serve as thoroughfares between 2 or more navigable lakes.

It is unlawful to operate a motorboat within 100 feet of any dock, raft, pier, or buoyed restricted area on any lake at a speed in excess of "slow-no-wake".

Age Restrictions

  • No person under the age of 10 years may operate a motorboat.
  • No person under 12 may operate a personal watercraft (PWC).
  • Persons 10 years but less than 12 years of age mat operate a motorboat (except PWC) only if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian or a person at least 18 years of age designated by the parent or guardian.
  • Persons at least 12 but less than 16 years of age may operate a motorboat only if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian or a person at least 18 years of age designated by the parent or guardian (except PWC) or if they have successfully completed a Department of Natural Resources prescribed Boating Safety Course and possess a safety certificate issued by the Department or state of their residency.
  • No person under 16 may rent a personal watercraft.
  • Persons at least 12 but less then 16 years of age may operate a personal watercraft if they have successfully completed a DNR prescribed Boating Safety Course and possess a safety certificate issued by the Department or state of their residency. Parental accompaniment may not be substituted for possession of a valid DNR safety certificate.
  • Parents or guardians are punishable by law for knowingly allowing unauthorized persons to operate a motorboat.

Note: ''Accompanied,'' for the purposes of these regulations, means ''aboard the same boat.''

Prohibited Methods of Operation
The use of intoxicants impairs a boat operator's senses and judgement. Intoxicants are related to 50% of all boating accidents. In Wisconsin, all motor boat operators are deemed to have given consent to a blood alcohol test.

                                                                Alcohol Level

                           Body weight

BLUE= Impaired            Green = Under the influence         Red =  DO NOT OPERATE                   

It is unlawful:

  • To operate a motorboat or use water skis, aquaplane or similar device while under the influence of an intoxicant or a controlled substance.
  • To fail to stop for duly authorized patrol boat displaying a blue light or requesting you to stop by any other method.
  • To operate or use any boat, or manipulate any water skis, aquaplane or similar device in a careless, negligent, or reckless manner so as to endanger his life, property or the life, property or person of another.
  • For any person in charge or control of a boat to authorize or permit the boat to be operated by any person who is knowingly physically or mentally incapable of operating suck boat under the prevailing circumstances.
  • While operating a motorboat to create a hazardous wake or wash when approaching or passing another boat. An operator is liable for damages caused to another by the wake or wash.
  • To operate a motorboat repeatedly in a circuitous course within 200 feet around any other boat or around any person who is swimming, if such circuitous course is within 200 feet of such boat or swimmer.
  • For any boat or water skier to operate or approach closer than 100 feet top any skin diver's flag or any swimmer unless the boat is part of the skin diving operation or is accompanying the swimmer.
  • While operating a motorboat to allow any person to ride or sit on the gunwales, tops of seat, backs or sides or on the decking over the bow while under way, unless such person is inboard of guards or railings provided on the boat to prevent passengers from being lost overboard, except for anchoring, mooring or cast off.
  • It is further recommended that on fishing boats (i.e. bass boats etc.) with carpeted decks, no person remain on the carpeted deck when the boat is moving faster than idle speed. Use only permanently attached true seats.
  • To operate a boat within an clearly marked in accordance with law by buoys or some other distinguishing device as a bathing or swimming area or other restricted use area, except in the case of emergency aids or regulatory markers.
  • To move, remove, molest, tamper with, destroy or attempt to destroy or moor or fasten a boat (except to mooring buoys) to any navigation aids or regulatory markers.
  • To anchor, place, affix, or abandon any unattended boat, raft, float or similar structure in the traveled portion of any river, channel, or in any traffic lanes established and legally marked, so that to prevent, impede or interfere with safe passage of any other boat through the same.
  • To operate any boat beyond the safe carrying capacity of passengers or cargo or to equip a boat with propulsion in excess of its safe power capacity, taking into consideration existing operating conditions.
  • To unnecessarily sound by sound-producing device on any boat or to use a siren except on authorized patrol boats.
  • To operate contrary to any legally posted municipal boating ordinances.

Water Skiing
It is unlawful:

  • To operate a motorboat having in tow a person on water skis, aquaplane or similar device other than in a careful and prudent manner and at a reasonable and safe distance from persons or property.
  • To engage in water skiing, aquaplane or similar activity from sunset to sunrise.
  • To operate a motorboat towing a person whether or not water skis, aquaplane, parasail, or similar device, unless there is in the boat a competent person in addition to the operator in a position to observe in fact, and must observe the person being towed and relay signals to the operator.
  • To operate a motorboat towing persons engage in water skiing, aquaplane, parasail, or similar activity within 100 feet of any occupied anchored boat, any personal watercraft, or marked swimming area or public boat landing, except where pick-up and drop areas established and marked with regulatory markers.
  • To operate a personal watercraft towing a person on water skiing, aquaplane or similar device unless the personal watercraft is designed to seat at least 3 persons.
  • For a person engaged in water skiing, aquaplane or similar activity to get within 100 feet of a personal watercraft or allow the tow rope while in use to get within 100 feet of a personal watercraft.

Note: Local ordinances may be more restrictive. Inquire through local boat patrol or municipality.

Skin Diving

  • It is unlawful to engage in underwater skin diving or swimming with use of swimming fins outside a marked swim area or beyond 150 feet from shore unless the location of such swimming or diving is marked by a diver's flag.
  • It is unlawful to scuba dive outside a marked swim area unless the location of the scuba diving is marked by a diver's flag.
  • Except in case of emergency, anyone engaged in such swimming or diving shall not rise to the surface outside of 50 feet from diver's flag.
  • The diver's flag shall not be less than 12 inches high and 15 inches long, display one diagonal white stripe 3 inches wide on a red background and must be clearly apparent at a distance of 100 yards.
  • No person diving or swimming shall interfere with someone engaged in fishing.
  • No person shall dive or swim in any area established navigation lane.

The operator of any boat involved in a boating accident must render assistance to the persons affected.
Accident Reporting - When a boating accident results in death or injury to any person or total damage in excess of $500 to boats or other property, every operator of a involved in such accident shall without delay and the quickest means available, give notice of the accident to a conservation warden or local law enforcement officer and shall file a written report within 10 days to the DNR on DNR form 4100-20 to DNR-Boat Safety, Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707

When the operator of a boat is physically incapable of making the report, and there is another occupant shall make such a report on form 4100-20, "Operator Boating Accident Report," which is available from law enforcement agencies.

                                       Distress Signal Flag
When observed a boat or person displaying a distress signal showing that person or boat is in need of help, it is the duty of any boat operator observing such a flag to stop and render aid. No such signal shall be displayed unless assistance is needed.

                                  Throwing Refuse in Waters
It is unlawful to leave, deposit, place, or throw on the waters, ice, shores of water or upon public or private property any cans, bottles, debris, refuse, solid waste material or fish parts.
                                                             DO NOT LITTER

                                       Waterway Markers
All official waterway markers (signs, buoys, lights, etc.) are designed to assist the boater by marking unsafe areas, directing traffic through safe channels, preventing accidents, and protecting resources. Honor them-they have been placed for your benefit.

Placement of all buoys or markers: It is unlawful to place any aids, markers or buoys on shore or in the waters of this state unless authorized by the political subdivision or municipality having jurisdiction. They in turn must obtain the necessary approvals from the Department of Natural Resources and any Federal Agencies concerned before the aid is placed.

                                     Channel Marker Buoys
All-green and all-red companion buoys indicate that the boating channel is between them. In flowing water, the red buoys is on the right side of the channel when facing upstream. The boating channel lies between these buoys.
All White Buoys with Black Vertical Strips-These buoys show the center of the channel and should be passed close to on either side.
Mooring-Buoys-These buoys shall be all white with a blue stripe mid-way between the top and the waterline. They will be spherical or ovate in shape with a minimum of 18 inches above the water-line. Authorization for placement shall be regulated the same as any other buoy, aid, or marker when placed more than 150 feet from shore.

                               Regulatory Buoy and Sign
Restriction. A white buoy or sign with an orange diamond and cross means that boats must keep out of the area. Black lettering on the buoy or sign gives the reason for the restriction, for example, SWIM AREA.
Danger. A white buoy or sign with an orange diamond warns boaters of danger-rocks, dams, rapids, etc. The source of danger will also be lettered in black. In winter, ice, hazards may also be identified with this marker in the form of a sign.
Controlled Area. A white buoy or sign with an orange circle indicates controlled or restricted areas on the water, such as slow, minimum-wake zones. Information on the specific restrictions will be lettered in black.
Informational. A white buoy or sign with an orange rectangle provides the boater with information or directions. Information will be in black.

                                Suggestions for Safety
1. Keep an alert lookout.
2. It is recommended that all occupants of any boat, or at least children and nonswimmers, wear an approved personal flotation device for their added safety.
3. Obey rules of the water.
4. If the boat tips but floats-stay with it.
5. Keep away from immediately above and below locks and dams, especially on the Mississippi River. Obey the U.S. Corps of Engineers signs.
6. Wisconsin weather has a habit of changing radically in a short period of time. These changes are almost always forecast well in advance by the weather bureau and warnings issued.

                          Make Wisconsin's Waters Safer
Report Boating Violations call your local law enforcement agent (warden, Sheriff, or police Department) or call 1-800-TIP-WDNR for Violations.

                    10 Most Common Boating Violations
1. Failure to provide proper number of personal flotation devices.
2. Operating boat without valid certificate of number,
3. Operating boat in prohibited area, in excess of speed limit on lakes 50 acres or less, or in excess of fixed limits.
4. Personal Watercraft violations.
5. Operating motorboat while under the influence of an intoxicant, or operating motorboat with BAC of 0.1% or greater.
6. Operating within 100 feet of dock, raft, pier, etc.
7. Operating boat at night without required lights.
8. Failure to display registration number or decal on boat.
9. Failure to secure or cover storage battery.
10. Failure to have certificate of number on board.

                        The Zebra Mussel- A Boaters Concern
The zebra mussel, a new invader to the Great Lakes, is about the size of a thumbnail. Zebra mussel can cause severe problems because they are very prolific and can attach in great numbers to any solid underwater surface. They are of special concern to boaters since they can encrust on boats hulls or cause damage to an engine.  Please take the following precautions when you transfer your boat from the zebra mussels infested waters of the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River to your favorite inland waters:

DRAIN all water from your boat, trailer, bilges, live wells, coolers, buckets, engine compartments or any other areas where water may be trapped. Even small amounts of water can hold zebra mussel larvae.
INSPECT your boat hull, prop, trailer or any other equipment and thoroughly scrape off any attached mussel. Young adults attached to boat hulls feel like grainy surface.
FLUSH your boat, trailer and any other equipment with hot tap water above 140 degrees F. Hotter temperatures in the range of 110 to 140 F are more effective for killing zebra mussels. An alternative to hot water treatment is to disinfect live wells or other areas where water is trapped using a household bleach solution (two tablespoons of bleach per gallon of hot water). Do not put this bleach water into the lake!
LEAVE your boat and/or equipment in a sunny location for at least 3 day before using it on inland waters. Adult zebra mussels, when deprived of a moist environment, should die. Outboard engines should be tipped up to allow cooling passages to thoroughly drain in order to prevent mussels from attaching. Another option is to flush the motor cooling system with hot water using special "Motor Muffs" available at your local marina.

For more information contact your nearest Wisconsin DNR field office.

Lake  Mallalieu Association