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Can the kids drive the boat - legally?

Updated: May 16, 2022

When we bought our boat, my son was chomping at the bit to drive it. I don’t know if it was the excitement of driving or being the captain in charge. Over the years, I’ve seen many young boys and girls (12+) at the helm: some with life jackets, some without, some with parents hovering behind them and others alone behind the wheel.

This led me to do some research, especially for Illinois & Wisconsin boating. Here’s a recap…



Under 10: No person under 10 years of age may operate a motorboat, including personal watercraft (PWC).

10 years and less than 12 years: may only operate under a parent or guardian's direct control.

12 years old but less than 18 years old: may operate a motorized vessel with more than 10 horsepower, including a PWC, only if:

· They complete a boating safety course and possess a Boating Safety Certificate accepted by the Department of Natural Resources or… · They are accompanied by and under the direct control of a parent, a guardian, or a person at least 18 years old designated by the parent or guardian*.

* Parents, guardians, or designees born on or after January 1, 1998, must have a valid boating safety certificate to supervise a person 10 to 17 years old who is operating a motorized vessel with more than 10 hp.

· All Children under the age of 13 MUST wear a PFD

The state of IL (through the Department of Natural Resources) recommends the following boating safety courses and certifications:

*We took the Boat-Ed courses for IL and it was a few hours to review the course and pass the exam.


Under 10: No person under 10 years of age may operate a motorboat, including personal watercraft (PWC).

10 or 11 years old: may only operate under a parent or guardian's direct control or designated adult born after January 1, 1989.

12 – 15 years old: may operate a motorboat only if he/she:

· Is accompanied by a parent, guardian, or designated adult.

· Completed a boating safety course approved by the WI DNC

16+: must complete a boating safety accepted by Wisconsin DNR or be accompanied by someone 18+that holds a boating safety certificate.


  • Boat Wisconsin Course - A three-hour course split into short segments designed for easy comprehension and quick learning. This course has identical text that student’s study in DNR's classroom courses, with more than 200 realistic drawings, more than an hour of streaming videos and interactive animations.

  • - Suitable for boaters of any age and reading skills. This course takes a minimum of three hours to complete.

  • Wisconsin Boat Rental Course - A course for Wisconsin residents and visitors who do not already possess a valid boating education certificate, but who wish to rent a boat or personal watercraft (PWC) to operate on Wisconsin waters. The course covers all the information you will need to know to receive your temporary boating certificate.

For more info on WI boating laws, go here:


I found helping my kids understand how the boat works and giving them jobs such as

  • Departing and docking roles

  • Learning to tie knots for different purposes

  • Staining the teak

makes it more fun and engaging for them when they take on the role of captain. It also gives them an understanding for when you ask for something and teaches them situational awareness. I think it’s a great idea with lots of upsides and lessons and will make them better boater as adults.

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