Know Your Local Waterskiing and Boating Laws and Rules

Waterskier waterskiing, Maggiore lake, Verbania, Piedmont, Italy
Guido Cavallini / Getty Images

When it comes to the law, pleading ignorance is no excuse—nor is it smart, especially when it comes to boating and water safety. Do yourself and your crew a favor before you head out for waterskiing: Know your local laws.

Laws for boating and waterskiing vary from state to state. Many are very similar, but you'll need to look for your locale's specific laws so you don't run afoul of rules you may not know.

What You Need to Ask

Reading legal rules and regulations isn't exactly the most exciting thing to do in preparation for a day on the water. To make the process easier, and to help you cover the important bases, approach it with a list of questions on topics you should get answers to for waterskiing rules and regulations.

Personal Floatation Devices

The first question you want to find an answer to is, what kind of personal floatation device is required for both the people on the boat and the waterskier. Is it required to be U.S. Coast Guard approved? For those in your boat, is it required that you have an available floatation device for each person in the boat?

Required Mirrors and Spotters

When you're dragging someone along behind your boat at high speeds, it helps to know if they have a mishap and are down. Sometimes a rearview mirror satisfies state requirements in this area, and these are often required to be wide-angle rearview mirrors. 

Some states, you are required to have a third person in the boat, called a "spotter" for tow sports on the water. 

This third person must meet certain requirements. Some laws indicate that the person must be "competent" and generally have age limitations—this is often no one under age 12, and in some cases, 14, can be a spotter.

Age of the Driver, Licensing, and Education

Speaking of age limits, the driver of the boat is generally required to be of a certain age. The age can vary; for example, many states limit the age of drivers to 12 and older for motorized watercraft.

A license is usually required to operate a motorized watercraft, and this will usually have an age requirement. There may also be special boater education requirements that must be met. In Washington state, for example, boaters are required to complete a boating education course.

Tow Rope Requirements

There may be limits on the length of the tow rope used for waterskiing in your state. This is often 75 feet maximum, but check your state's rules.

Also, it may be required that the tow rope is immediately pulled in when not being used. This is common sense, too, as dragging around a loose tow rope is dangerous.

Speed Limits and Hours

Just like highways, waterways often have speed limits, and this applies to waterskiing. Know the limit on how fast you can drive your boat when towing a skier. 

Another detail to look into is any restrictions on times you may waterski. The hours for waterskiing may normally be from sunrise to sunset—so no night waterskiing—but check to be sure your area has set its own specific hours for waterskiing.

Distance from Shore and Flagging Requirements

When waterskiing, you may be required to have a ski flag to signal when a waterskier is down. In California, for example, it's mandatory to use a ski flag when a skier is preparing to ski or is down, a tow line is extended from the boat or there is a ski in the water in the vicinity of your boat. California's law defines a ski flag as:

"A red or orange flag measuring no less than 12 inches on each side, in the shape of a square or rectangle, mounted or displayed in such a manner as to be visible from every direction shall be known as a ski flag."

There may also be limits on how close to shore you may tow a waterskier. 

Reporting Accidents

It's always good to report accidents if you encounter them, and in some states, you are required to report any accidents. Failing to do so could land you in trouble.

More Information

More information on boating laws may be found at the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary site.

Often, a copy of your local waterskiing laws may be picked up at your Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).