Boating in Washington State: Important Laws To Know

by Lennard A. Nahajski on Feb. 01, 2020

Criminal Criminal  Felony Criminal  Misdemeanor 

Summary: Operating a vessel on Washington's waterways requires a significant knowledge of both legal requirements and common sense. These are the some of the most important laws to know when boating.


As a criminal defense attorney who has been practicing in the area for almost twenty-seven years – and having lived on Lake Sammamish for eighteen 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:

  1. 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 if you are 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 choose to 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 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.  

  1. Personal Watercraft (“PWC”)

AGE:  Many people do not realize that a person under the age of fourteen is PROHIBITED from operating any PWC at any time, even with adult supervision, and even if they have completed a boater safety course.  PWCs cannot be rented to anyone under the age of sixteen.

VESTS/MISC.:  Any operator or passenger on a PWC must wear an approved floatation 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 aftermarket 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)).


  1. Boater Education Cards

All boat operators who were born January 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., but an operator (over the age of 12 years of age) may operate a vessel, even if they do not have a Boater Safety Card if under the direct supervision of a person at least 16 years of age who has a Boater Safety Card.

AGE OF OPERATORS: No child under the age of 12 can operate any vessel over 15hp. 


  1. 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 ninety days in jail and a $1,000 fine.


  1. General boating rules and regulations

VESTS:  Everyone on a PWC or being towed behind a boat, including wake surfers, are required to be wearing approved floatation 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 under the age of 12 are required to be wearing an approved vest UNLESS the boat is 19’ or more in length.

SKIIER 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° 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

The Nahajski Firm

601 – 108th Avenue NE, Suite 1900

Bellevue, WA  98004-4376


Legal Articles Additional Disclaimer is not a law firm and does not offer legal advice. Content posted on is the sole responsibility of the person from whom such content originated and is not reviewed or commented on by The application of law to any set of facts is a highly specialized skill, practiced by lawyers and often dependent on jurisdiction. Content on the site of a legal nature may or may not be accurate for a particular state or jurisdiction and may largely depend on specific circumstances surrounding individual cases, which may or may not be consistent with your circumstances or may no longer be up-to-date to the extent that laws have changed since posting. Legal articles therefore are for review as general research and for use in helping to gauge a lawyer's expertise on a matter. If you are seeking specific legal advice, recommends that you contact a lawyer to review your specific issues. See's full Terms of Use for more information.