The Cop Column
May, 2004

Sgt Rick Hord
Public Information Officer

Be Legal on the Water

By population, Okaloosa county ranks 23rd in Florida, and by number of registered boats we're number 21.

With more than 2,800 Personal Water Craft (PWC's), Okaloosa County ranks 12th in the state, and we're one of only eight Florida counties with 100 or more rental PWC's.

Many people are familiar with the terms "Waverunner." "Jet-Ski," and "Sea-Do," which are all trademarked product names. PWC is the preferred generic term.

Now some bad news: in number of boating accidents, Okaloosa County is seventh in the state, ahead of such much larger counties as Hillsborough (the Tampa area), Duval (Jacksonville), Brevard (Titusville), Volusia (Daytona Beach), Sarasota, and Escambia.

Even more astounding: of the 32 counties of 100,000 or more population, only one (Broward) has a per-boat crash rate higher than Okaloosa's.

Until recent years, Florida had essentially no legal restrictions on who could operate a recreational motorboat. That's no longer the case.

Although there's no "driver license" for recreational boats, there is something close, a least for anybody under 21. A "Boater Safety Identification Card" is required for anyone under the age of 21 operating a motorboat of ten horsepower or more. Boaters over age 21 may also obtain a card, although it's not mandatory for them.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issues the card, free of charge, to individuals who complete an approved boating safety course and pass an exam. That can be done several ways, including a $15 on-line version. Tourists often opt for a three dollar temporary certificate available on the spot at many boat-rental locations. If you have Internet access, more information may be found at or you may call the FWCC at (850) 488-5600.

Nobody under 14 may operate any PWC in Florida, although there is no minimum age for other types of boats. The minimum age to rent a PWC is 18; a 14 year old may operate a rented PWC, as long as someone at least 18 rented it.

PWC's, even if equipped with lights, may not be operated at night.

State law points out some examples of reckless operation: "weaving through congested vessel traffic, jumping the wake of another vessel unreasonably or unnecessarily close to such other vessel or when visibility around such other vessel is obstructed, and swerving at the last possible moment to avoid collision..."

On a PWC... wear your PFD. What many people call a "life jacket" is more properly known as a "Personal Flotation Device," or PFD. Anyone of any age operating, riding on, or being towed behind a PWC must wear one.

Also required to wear a PFD at all times: anyone engaged in water skiing or similar activity, and children under the age of 6 on boats of less than 26 feet.

Although open containers of alcoholic beverage are not specifically outlawed on boats as they are in cars, the DUI laws and penalties on the water are very similar to the DUI laws on land. It's also illegal to water ski while drunk.