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Personal Watercraft Rules & Safety

Most Common Questions
Do I need a boating license or boating safety certificate to operate a boat or personal watercraft (
PWC) in Florida?
Anyone under the age of 22 (21 and under) is required to have a boating safety education ID card along with a photo ID while operating a vessel with 10 horsepower or greater in Florida waters.  This includes a personal watercraft (PWC). Persons under age 14 may not operate a PWC

A person is exempt from this requirement if there is a person on board who is not affected by this law or is at least 18 years of age and holds a boater education ID card. This person must be attendant to and take responsibility for the safe operation of the vessel.

The type of card you need depends on whether you are a resident of Florida or not. If you are a Florida resident, you can take the following online boating safety course which is approved by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Successfully completing this course will allow you to obtain the official Florida Boating Safety Education ID Card.

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BoaterExam.com — Get Your Boating License Online!
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How old do I need to be to rent a PWC?
Companies in Florida are prohibited from renting a Personal Water Craft (PWC) to anyone under 18 years of age. Persons 14 years or older may operate a rented PWC, as long as someone 18 or older rented it. You must be at least 18 to enter into a rental contract for a PWC.

A person must be at least 14 years of age
to operate a personal watercraft in this state.

A person must be at least 18 years of age
to rent a personal watercraft in Florida.

It is unlawful for a person to knowingly allow a person under 14 years of age to operate a personal watercraft (a second-degree misdemeanor).


Are there places where I am not allowed to operate my jet ski or waverunner?

PWCs, airboats, water skiing or any “towing” activity is not allowed within three National Refuge Areas of the Lower Keys:  Key Deer National Refuge, Great White Heron National Refuge, and the Key West Refuge. These areas are regulated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW).  Follow the link below, and then scroll down to pages 20 and 21 to view a map of the restricted areas:  

http://www.fws.gov/southeast/pubs/nkdgen.pdf

It is legal to operate PWCs along the shoreline parallel to U. S. Highway One (“Overseas Highway”), for the purpose of allowing “transportation” from one point to the next.  The purpose of not allowing PWC, Airboat, and Skiiing activity in the “back country,” or the islands not connected by U. S. Highway One, is to prevent disturbing wildlife and bird nesting areas.

For other information, you can also contact the USFW at the Key Deer National Refuge in Big Pine Key.  Their phone number is 305-872-2239.

Be Aware and Show You Care by Following These General Rules

  • Each person operating, riding on, or being towed behind a personal watercraft must wear an approved non-inflatable Type I, II, III, or V personal flotation device. Inflatable personal flotation devices are prohibited.
     
  • The operator of a personal watercraft must attach the engine cutoff switch lanyard (if equipped by the manufacturer) to his/her person, clothing, or PFD.
  • Personal watercraft may not be operated from 1/2 hour after sunset to 1/2 hour before sunrise.
     
  • Maneuvering a personal watercraft by weaving through congested vessel traffic, jumping the wake of another vessel unreasonably close or when visibility around the vessel is obstructed, or swerving at the last possible moment to avoid collision is classified as reckless operation of a vessel (a first-degree misdemeanor).
     
  • Each person operating or riding on a personal watercraft must wear an approved Type I, II, III, or V personal floatation device. Inflatable personal floatation devices are prohibited. The operator of a personal watercraft must attach the engine cutoff switch lanyard (if equipped by the manufacturer) to his/her person, clothing, or PFD.
     
  • Maneuvering a personal watercraft by weaving through congested vessel traffic, jumping the wake of another vessel unreasonably close, or when visibility around the vessel is obstructed, or swerving at the last possible moment to avoid collision is classified as reckless operation of a vessel (a first-degree misdemeanor).

In addition, if allowing someone to drive your PWC:

  • Let them know that they are operating a vessel and have the same responsibilities as any other vessel operator.
  • Let beginners take their first rides in an uncrowded area. While on shore, show them the proper procedures for deep water starting and reboarding.
  • Be sure to give instruction on how to steer and control the PWC. Remind them that power is required for steering control!

  • Point out that it is easy to have so much fun that you forget to watch where you are going. Tell them to look around before making a turn.

Important Things to Remember

  • Refuel on land to reduce any chances of spilling oil or gas into the water.
  • Slow down when filling the tank, do not overfill, catch any accidental spills with an absorbent pad, and dispose of it properly.
  • Check and clean your engine well away from shorelines. Oil can harm the water's delicate micro-organisms and the animals that feed on them.
  • In shallow waters, boats may stir up the bottom, suspending sediments which limit light penetration and deplete oxygen. This can affect fish and bird feeding.
  • Ride in main channels, and limit riding in shallow water.
  • When it is necessary to ride in shallow water, keep watercraft at an idle speed. This will help reduce turbidity (the stirring up of bottom sediments which limits light penetration and depletes oxygen, affecting fish and bird feeding).
  • In coastal areas be aware of the low tide. The waters may be substantially more shallow at these times, exposing valuable fish nurseries such as sea grass beds and other delicate vegetation.
  • Birds feeding in shallow areas or on the shoreline should not be disturbed.
  • If you are riding near coral, do not use an anchor, and be careful when diving to avoid coming in contact with these delicate organisms.
  • Stay away from kelp forests. Found close to shore, the kelp canopy covers the surface of the water and extends down, supporting a lush underwater community of fish, invertebrates, sea urchins and sea otters.
  • Avoid grass marshes found in salt or fresh water coastal areas or rivers. Hidden in the thickets are nesting birds, frogs, turtles, snakes and possibly alligators.
  • Observe posted no-wake zones near shore. Excessive boat wakes may contribute to shoreline erosion, which can affect the habitats of plants and animals.
  • Be a courteous boat operator. Be aware that noise and movements of boats may disturb the local residents - including waterfront homeowners, birds, marine mammals and other wildlife.
  • Ride at controlled speeds so you can see any animals ahead of you.
  • Avoid areas of high animal population.
  • If you see an animal hit by a boat, note the location and report it immediately to your local wildlife commission.
  • When docking or beaching, look for evidence of turtles, birds, alligators and other animals along shore.
  • Avoid docking or beaching where plants such as reeds, grasses and mangroves are located. These essential plants control erosion and provide a nursery ground for many small animals and fish.
  • Be aware of the endangered species that are found in your riding area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for listing the hundreds of species in decline.
  • Wash off your boat after you use it to prevent the spread of exotic plants to other lakes and rivers. Exotics have no natural enemies and spread easily, killing off native species and decreasing important plant and animal diversity.

Harassment
Do not harass wildlife by chasing or interrupting feeding, nesting or resting. Harassment is defined as any action that may cause an animal to deviate from its normal behavior. It is illegal and can unduly stress wildlife. Mammals such as sea otters, sea lions, manatees and whales can be injured from direct impact by boats traveling at high speeds. Ride at controlled speeds so you can see any animals ahead of you. Avoid areas of high animal population. If you hit an animal, report it to your local wildlife commission. There may be a chance to save its life.

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Environmental Considerations
Refuel on land to reduce any chances of spilling oil or gas into the water. Slow down when filling the tank, do not overfill, catch any accidental spills with an absorbent pad, and dispose of it properly. Check and clean your engine well away from shorelines. Oil can harm the water's delicate micro-organisms and the animals that feed on them, potentially upsetting the entire food chain.

Turbidity
In shallow waters, boats may stir up the bottom, suspending sediments which limit light penetration and deplete oxygen. This can affect fish and bird feeding. Ride in main channels, and limit riding in shallow water. When it is necessary to ride in shallow water, keep watercraft at an idle speed. This will help reduce turbidity (the stirring up of bottom sediments which limits light penetration and depletes oxygen, affecting fish and bird feeding). In coastal areas be aware of the low tide. The waters may be substantially more shallow at these times, exposing valuable fish nurseries such as sea grass beds and other delicate vegetation.

Vegetation
Vegetation such as sea grasses are delicate nursery grounds where many of the fish in our waters originate. Weeds, grasses and other plant life are not good for your PWC. Ingestion of these into your craft may cause engine or pump problems, and reduce performance. Stay away! When possible, operate well away from shore because, typically, wildlife inhabit the vegetation along the shore's edge. The least amount of disturbance is in the marked channels or the deeper areas of a lake or river. If at all possible, stay in main channels.

No Wake Near Shore
Excessive boat wakes may contribute to shoreline erosion, especially in narrow streams and inlets. Erosion is a concern for all shorelines including rivers, lakes and oceans. The slow destruction of shorelines affects the habitats of plants and animals. Near the shore avoid high speeds which create wakes and observe posted no wake zones.

Wash Your Watercraft
Wash your boat off after you use it to prevent the spread of exotic plants to other lakes and rivers. Exotics are plants and animals that are non-native to a specific area. Exotics have no natural enemies and spread easily, taking over an area to the exclusion of native species, thus decreasing important plant and animal diversity.

Watch Where You Stop
When docking or beaching, look for evidence of turtles, birds, alligators and other animals along shore. Avoid docking or beaching where plants such as reeds, grasses and mangroves are located. These essential plants control erosion and provide a nursery ground for many small animals and fish.

Endangered Species
Many species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was created to protect these animals. It is illegal to trade, kill, hunt, collect, harass, harm, pursue, shoot, trap, wound or capture species designated as endangered, or in danger of extinction, such as threatened, rare, and species of concern. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for listing the hundreds of species in decline.

Special Habitats
Mangroves are a distinctive type of tree that have adapted to living in or near saltwater. There are four types of trees, two of which are threatened with extinction. Many shore birds such as pelicans and roseate spoonbills nest in mangrove forests and islands. Mangroves shelter other marine life, control erosion and filter runoff. They also build up the shoreline and serve as a buffer that protects the land from storms and winds. Don't operate in unmarked mangrove channels - you're disturbing mangroves, birds and other animals who reside in this area. Coral is a living organism which provides a safe haven for hundreds of marine creatures. This firm, yet fragile species is vulnerable to the effects of human intrusion. If you are riding near coral, do not use an anchor, and be careful when diving to avoid coming in contact with these delicate organisms.

Marine Plant Life
Kelp forests support a lush underwater community teeming with fish, invertebrates sea urchins and sea otters. Found close to shore, the kelp canopy covers the surface of the water and extends down, sometimes thousands of feet, to the bottom of the ocean floor. In warm months, this seaweed can grow as much as a foot a day. Sea grasses are nursery grounds normally found in protected waters called estuaries where fresh water and salt water meet. Most of the world's fish have their beginnings in estuaries and their associated sea grass habitat. Sea grasses are very delicate and their destruction can lead to degradation of the entire marine cycle. As a responsible PWC operator, stay away from both of these environmentally sensitive areas.

Noise
Be aware that the noise and movements of boats may disturb bird populations. Steer clear of posted bird nesting areas. Many migratory birds are easily stressed and especially vulnerable during their migration period. Birds will typically fly away from disturbing noises and any unnecessary expenditure of energy can harm a feeding or resting bird. Bird rookeries are especially vulnerable to noise from boats, including personal watercraft. Nesting birds may fly from the nesting exposing unprotected eggs and hatchlings to the sun's heat or predators.

Working Together
We all have a duty to the next generation to protect our bountiful natural resources. Take a moment to learn what the environmental concerns are in your riding area. If you're interested in observing wildlife while riding, keep an idle speed to reduce wake, noise and turbidity (stirring up the bottom). Know your riding area for the safety of the environment, for your own protection, and for your personal watercraft's protection.

Special thanks to The Personal Watercraft Industry Association for providing text for this page. The PWIA is a trade organization dedicated to promoting safe and responsible riding; this includes following safe boating rules and operating to protect the environment from harm due to rider carelessness.

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