As a criminal defense attorney who has been practicing in the area for almost 27 years — and having lived on Lake Sammamish for 18 years as an avid wake surfer — I am regularly asked by friends and neighbors about boating statutes, rules and regulations.
With a sunny and hot summer approaching, I can anticipate how busy — and potentially dangerous — the lake will be for us all. Although nothing beats common sense and experience when on the water, these are the top things everyone should know before heading out onto the lake:
Alcohol/boating under the influence (BUI)
Just like driving a car, it is illegal to operate a vessel while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. The legal alcohol limit is .08 or 5.0 ng of THC. It is still possible, however, to be convicted of BUI under these thresholds if the state can prove you were affected to any appreciable degree by the alcohol, marijuana or other drugs (legal or illegal) you consumed. The opinion of the officer can be sufficient.
If convicted of BUI you are facing up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine, in addition to up to two years of probation, alcohol treatment and all the other consequences of a criminal conviction, including difficulty obtaining employment, renting apartments and even entering Canada.
If you are stopped on the water, the officer may choose to administer field tests if the situation allows and then decide whether to place you under arrest and take you to another location for a formal breath test. If you refuse the breath or blood test requested by law enforcement, you will not lose your driver’s license as you would if you were operating a car, but you are subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 just for refusing the test, in addition to all the other the possible criminal penalties for a BUI. The refusal cannot be used against you in a later criminal proceeding.
Open container: Unlike in a car, it is not illegal for passengers to possess alcohol in a boat. However, the operator of the vessel is prohibited from having an open container of alcohol in their possession while the vessel is being operated — including an open container sitting in the operator’s cup holder.
Personal watercrafts (PWC)
Age: Many people do not realize that a person under the age of 14 is prohibited from operating any PWC at any time, even with adult supervision — even if they have completed a boater safety course. PWCs cannot be rented to anyone under the age 16.
Vests/miscellaneous: Any operator or passenger on a PWC must wear an approved flotation device, have a whistle and know where the fire extinguisher is located.
Towing: A PWC may legally tow a skier/wakeboarder/inner tube as long as a responsible rear-facing observer has a skier down flag.
Darkness: No PWC can be legally operated after dark, even if equipped with after-market navigation lights.
Bouys: Just like boats, PWCs cannot violate the no wake zone (100 yards from shore). While it is tempting to zip out into the lake from your dock, you are subject to being cited (with the one exception of dock starts (see below)).
Boater education cards
All boat operators who were born Jan. 1, 1955 or after are required to have a boater education card in their possession while operating a vessel with 15hp or more. Make sure any guests who are operating your boat or PWC are aware of this requirement. An operator (older than the age of 12) may operate a vessel — even if they do not have a boater education card — if under the direct supervision of a person at least 16 years of age who has a boater education card.
Age of operators: No child younger than the age of 12 can operate any vessel over 15hp.
Negligent boating/reckless boating
Any operation of a vessel with disregard of careful and prudent operation or rates of speed that are unreasonable or proper based on the conditions, may result in a negligent boating citation. Reckless boating is a misdemeanor that carries up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
General boating rules and regulations
Vests: Everyone on a PWC or being towed behind a boat, including wake surfers, are required to wear approved flotation devices. There must be enough approved vests in each vessel for every passenger, in addition to a throwable device that is readily accessible (i.e. not under one of the seats). Children younger than the age of 12 are required to be wearing an approved vest unless the boat is 19 feet or more in length.
Skier down flag: Must be bright red or brilliant orange and cannot be permanently affixed to the boat or tower. The flag must be used by a responsible observer who is not the operator.
Night skiing: It is illegal to ski/wakeboard/inner tube/surf one hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset. The statute does not have a specific exception for vessels equipped with tower lights. A violation of this statute is a criminal offense.
Gunwale/swim step/sun deck: It is illegal to operate a vessel while a passenger is seated on the gunwale, swim step or sun deck.
Dock starts: It is legal (although potentially dangerous and not recommended) to start and finish a ski run as long as the vessel takes a 45-degree angle to and from the dock.
This information is not intended to a comprehensive summary of all recreational boating laws, but I hope this has been helpful. Feel free to contact our firm if you have any additional questions.
Len Nahajski is a criminal defense attorney with The Nahajski Firm in Bellevue. He can be reached at (206) 621-0500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.