Minnesota is home to some 826,000 registered boats, or one for every 6.76 residents. That’s more than any state except Florida, which is saying a lot, considering that some states — think Michigan and California — boast much higher human populations than Minnesota, as well as miles and miles of shoreline.
Minnesota also has the fewest boating fatalities in the nation per registered watercraft, with an average annual rate of 10 to 15 deaths per year, said Lisa Dugan, Department of Natural Resources boat and water safety coordinator.
Which is the good news, relatively speaking. Less encouraging are the boating violations that DNR conservation officers, sheriff’s deputies, National Park Service officers and other agents find when they stop Minnesotans on the water.
As evidence, consider the following dispatch filed by Brainerd area conservation officer Jim Guida, in which he details time he spent on water patrol over Memorial Day weekend:
“Numerous anglers and boaters were checked,’’ Guida reported. “Some boaters were without required safety equipment and required angling licenses. Violations addressed included no horn/sound producing device, no type IV PFD, no fire extinguisher, insufficient PFDs, operating watercraft after sunset without required navigation lights, PWC (personal watercraft) operation after hours, and watercraft registration violations.’’
Guida’s account is not uncommon. The state’s many watercraft equipment and safety regulations too often are considered afterthoughts, officials say, by Minnesota boaters eager to get on the water to fish, cruise, water ski or just hang out.
The four most common boating violations cited by Minnesota conservation officers are:
• Stowing life jackets in a way that they’re not readily accessible, as required by law.
• Not having a throwable flotation device readily available.
• Failing to use navigation lights after sunset.
• Not having enough life jackets on board. Not having the correct size life jackets for passengers aboard. Or having life jackets that are torn or otherwise compromised or unusable.
“Readily accessible” life jackets can be defined many ways, Dugan said. It’s OK if they’re stowed in unlocked compartments. “But if they’re still wrapped in their original plastic or otherwise difficult to use, that’s not readily accessible,” she said.
Required as well is that children younger than 10 must wear a properly fitted life jacket while a boat is underway — underway meaning not tied to a permanent mooring or dock.
Life jackets are important, Dugan said, because about half of boating fatalities occur when an occupant trips or otherwise falls overboard. “And 90 percent of fatalities in those cases weren’t wearing a life jacket,” she said.
In addition to life jackets, approved cushions or other throwable devices are required on boats 16 feet and longer. Technically, these are called Type IV PFDs, which are defined as “approved devices with at least 16.5 pounds of buoyancy designed to be thrown to a person in the water.” In addition to buoyant cushions, ring buoys also qualify.
Unlike life jackets, Dugan said, throwables generally must be within reach of the boat driver, or captain.
Minnesota boaters also are often cited for improper use of bow and stern navigation lights, which are required to be illuminated beginning at legal sunset, the time of which varies daily by location. Boaters can’t simply guess when legal sunset happens. They’re required to know when it occurs at their location and use navigation lights thereafter.
DNR assistant enforcement director Lt. Col. Greg Salo said conservation officers often also encounter issues with fire extinguishers, which are required on large boats, as well as those less than 26 feet long with an “enclosed engine, fuel tanks or other spaces.” Fire extinguishers must be Coast Guard-approved, fully charged and accessible.
“If there is a problem, most of the time it’s that the extinguisher is old and has lost its charge,” Salo said.
Other ways Minnesota boaters run afoul of the law include:
• Alcohol: It’s legal to drink while boating in Minnesota, but it’s illegal to be over the same .08 blood-alcohol limit that applies to vehicle operation. First-time violators face up to $1,000 fines plus related costs, possible jail time and loss of motorboat operating privileges for 90 days during the boating season.
• Age restrictions: Kids younger than 16 can’t wear inflatable vests. Unsupervised kids younger than 12 can only operate boats with 25 or fewer horsepower. Boats with 25-75 horsepower can only be operated by youth younger than 12 if an adult 21 or older is within reach of the controls. And kids under 12 can’t operate boats with more than 75 horsepower under any conditions. (The DNR recommends all boaters, regardless of age, take the state’s boating safety course available at mndnr.gov/boatingcourse.)
• Overloading: A boat’s horsepower, weight and maximum number of passengers can’t exceed limitations shown on the boat manufacturer’s capacity plate.
• Passenger placement: It’s against the law to ride or sit on a boat’s gunwales, bow or transom while underway, or on decking over the bow, sides or stern, unless the boat is equipped with an adequate railing. It is also illegal to operate a motorboat if a passenger is riding in any of those manners.
Minnesota boaters are reminded as well that a law that took effect May 1 intended to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning deaths requires, among other things, that watercraft with qualifying enclosed compartments be outfitted with marine carbon monoxide detection systems. (Details at bit.ly/mnboaters.)