Boating Safety on Lake Erie: Tips For Your Next Lake Day

small boat on a lake

It’s a lovely thing to live in a city or town surrounding Lake Erie. Unlike expensive ocean-side cities in Florida or California, those who live near a Great Lake, like us Buffalonians, get to experience fishing and boating at an affordable cost. Cruising around a lake with family and friends is a significant advantage in Western New York. But because boating has evolved to easy access, it’s become comfortable to overlook the seriousness of the great water. Before you take your boat out on Lake Erie, it’s crucial to be fully educated and have all safety protocols in place. 


Lake Erie History

Lake Erie. The shallowest of the Great Lakes, but perhaps the mightiest. The 9,910 square miles of freshwater-filled basin holds many nicknames representing its abundant history. You can call it “The Walleye Capital of the World” or “where the Rust Belt meets the water,” as a New York Times reporter famously labeled it in 2004. Lake Erie was once even referred to as “a hike” in 1978 when an Ohio man walked across the frozen lake from Cleveland to Ontario. Or you could call the Southernmost Great Lake as NASA defines it: “a ship graveyard” – which may be the most suitable moniker, as many marine-obsessed researchers believe Lake Erie to be home to the most shipwrecks per square mile than any other body of water in the world.  

The high frequency of shipwrecks on Lake Erie may have occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. Still, it rings true to the frightening truth that remains today: Lake Erie is mighty – its unpredictability and shallowness remain and can still induce disaster. Most residents of metropolitan cities surrounding the Great Lake don’t see steamboats anymore. In cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, Lake Erie is the ultimate hot spot for sport fishing, joyriding on a pontoon boat, and jet skiing to a restaurant on the water with a dock for fun. Even though present-day lake use is recreational and more accessible, Lake Erie is still the same body of water that had the power to take down over 2,000 ships. 

Most Common Accidents on Lake Erie Water

The U.S. Coast Guard generates a Recreational Boating Statistics report to inform on the trends of boating accidents across the U.S. each year. The results are unsettling. According to their 2023 publication, operator inattention accounted for 586 boating accidents; improper lookout caused 421, followed by inexperience, excessive speed, and alcohol use, which was the primary reason for 211 accidents. All of the above have to do with driver operation. Motor vehicle accident statistics on land likely mimic this trend, but the difference is that boating is strictly recreational (at least for the purpose of this study, it is).  

Be Prepared: New York State Boating Laws & Safety

Regardless of size or use, all motorized vessels are subject to NYS boating laws and regulations. Whether it’s a yacht or canoe (yes, there are electric and gas-motorized canoes), it must be registered with the DMV before its launch on Lake Erie. If it has a motor, it needs to be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.  

Almost all NYS boat operators, including jet skiers, must also obtain a boating safety certificate. In 2020, Governor Cuomo signed Brianna’s Law into legislation, which has been implemented by phasing in age groups over six years. For the 2024 season, all NYS boaters born after January 1, 1978, must obtain a Boating Safety Certificate before operating a motorized vessel or personal watercraft (PWC) in New York. Starting January 1, 2025, boaters of all ages will be subject to this requirement. Completing the NYS boating safety course generates your certificate, which can be taken in person or online. Pay attention to this course – according to the Coast Guard’s report, 75% of deaths on U.S. water were linked to boats operated by drivers who had not taken a boating safety course. 

Any boat on Lake Erie – motorized or not – is also subject to New York’s Personal Flotation Device (PFD) requirements. Each vessel on the water must have at least one U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD per person aboard. Most people are familiar with the term and usage of life jackets; they represent the most commonly thought of a PFD. There are also flotation aids, throwable devices, near-shore vests, and inflatable PFDs. Life jackets must be in proper condition, readily accessible, and of appropriate size for potential wearers. Do not brush this one off either – the USCG reported that for the 2023 boating season, 87% of recreational boaters who suffered death by drowning were not wearing a life jacket.  

Safety requirements and guidelines do not look the same for all boats – there is a laundry list of many factors at play, like the size of the boat or the age of its passengers. Look at New York’s Vessel Equipment Reference Guide for a simple breakdown of required equipment by vessel class to ensure you’re fully prepared before your first launch this season. 

Why Marine Forecast Monitoring Is So Important

No one should be on Lake Erie in any capacity without checking the marine forecast. Boaters should know the forecast before taking a boat onto any water, but it is especially crucial for Lake Erie – that is because of its notorious ability to be unpredictable, as highlighted before. The views from your home or your drive to the marina may depict a gloriously sunny afternoon with no cloud in sight, but the weather just a few minutes later and out onto the lake could be the opposite. A boater’s best way to avoid that scary scenario is to check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast before setting off.  

The NYS boating safety course informs all new boaters how to interpret the marine forecast. Winds over water are measured by knots – 1 knot converts to approximately 1.15 miles per hour. The estimates will also provide additional details where necessary, for example, if an isolated thunderstorm is expected or how high the waves are climbing. There are additional factors to consider when determining whether it’s a safe or enjoyable forecast for a lake day. For example, the “perfect” lake weather for a sailboat owner probably looks different for a canoer.  

Boozing & Boating: The Law

It is illegal and punishable by both state and federal laws to operate a boat while under the influence (BUI), and depending on where you are driving, you could be punished on both levels. The laws do not discriminate based on the type of motorized vessel either. (Yes, you could be stopped by the USCG or your local marine enforcement unit for kayaking with a BAC of .08% or higher). Penalties for a BUI charge range from hefty fines to jail time; more on that later.  

Boozing & Boating: The Dangers

The U.S. Coast Guard reports that alcohol is associated with a third of all boating-related deaths.  

The dangers of alcohol consumption on a boat are not limited to operators and their risk of getting pulled over and fined. Nonetheless, drinking and boating seem to be commonplace anyway. There are docks along the shores of Lake Erie unofficially designated for day drinking on boats. There are even companies whose sole operation is to provide tours for participants to drink while on the lake. But intoxication on the water is terrifying for reasons most people probably never thought of.   

According to the USCG 

  1. Alcohol is more dangerous on water than it is on land. 
  2. The driver of a boat with a BAC of .10 percent or higher is TEN times more likely to die than a sober driver. 
  3. Drivers on water experience more significant effects from alcohol than they would while on land 
  4. The increased body temperature that alcohol causes can make a driver or passenger unable to determine the dangerously cold temperatures of the water (and therefore, increase the risk of becoming hypothermic) 

Penalties for Violating Boating Laws on Lake Erie

The USCG’s Ninth District and designated local marine units monitor Lake Erie waters (e.g., for Erie County, it would be the Sheriff’s office). The USCG enforces federal marine law when within its jurisdiction. Local marine divisions enforce New York State Navigation laws. Let’s look at what some of the above-discussed violations (and more) could cost you. 

  • Failure to present a boating safety certificate – $100-$250 fine or seven days maximum imprisonment, sometimes punishable by both (Navigation Law – NAV § 49 & 73-c).  
  • Failure to carry USCG-approved PFDs – $25-$100 fine (Navigation Law – NAV § 40).  
  • Failure to wear a life jacket on a PWC (e.g., jet ski) – $50-$200 fine, maximum increases to $400 for a second offense, and $500 for a third with revocation of boating privileges (Navigation Law – NAV § 73-a).  
  • Reckless operation – $250-$500 fine or 30 days maximum imprisonment; in some cases, punishable by both (Navigation Law – NAV § 45 & 73-b).  
  • Speeding (operating at a speed determined unreasonable/without judgment) – $100-$250 fine, or seven days maximum imprisonment; sometimes, punishable by both (Navigation Law – NAV § 45 & 73-c).  
  • Boating under the influence (BUI) – $500-$1,000 fine, or one-year maximum imprisonment; sometimes punishable by both or by suspension of boating privileges & vessel registration for 6-12 months (Navigation Law – NAV § 49-a).  
  • Failure to assist a vessel in distress (to the best of your ability) – $100-$250 fine, or seven days maximum imprisonment; sometimes, punishable by both (Navigation Law – NAV § 41 & 73-c).  
  • Failure to report an accident – $100-$250 fine, or seven days maximum imprisonment; sometimes, punishable by both 
  • Failure to stop and report an accident involving personal injury is a class B misdemeanor punishable by a $250-$500 fine.  
  • Failure to stop and report an accident that caused severe personal injury (as defined by penal law) or disappearance of a person is a class E felony. 
  • Failure to stop/report when an accident results in the death of a person is a class D felony (Navigation Law – NAV § 47 & 73-c).  

You can download a copy of the New York’s Recreational Boating Accident Report. 

In Case of an Emergency

Boaters on Lake Erie can significantly reduce their risk of an emergency situation if they follow boating laws and safety recommendations, but no one is foolproof on such unpredictable waters. Regardless of vessel type or personal experience, every boater should have an emergency plan with all the equipment necessary to carry it out should they ever wind up in a dangerous situation.  

All boaters should have a marine (VHF) radio on board. The marine radio allows boaters to monitor weather warnings and communicate with other boaters, the USCG, and nearby marinas. With the reach of cellular networks today, many assume cell phones can be used to call for a towboat or emergency response. While operators and passengers may have service throughout their entire route on the lake, using cell phones to communicate with the USCG or local emergency teams is not recommended. Doing so creates a delay in response, and marine-based responders may only be able to communicate with the distressed party by radio.  

Depending on the boat’s size, emergency equipment, such as sound-producing devices, distress signals, navigation lights for boating after dark, and fire extinguishers are required. All boaters should have other recommended equipment on board: a compass, paddles, spare parts/tools, a first aid kit, and a flashlight. When dealing with waters like Lake Erie, it’s wise to keep a stash of blankets, too, in the event you get stranded in cold weather. 

Lake Erie is a magnificent body of water, providing abundant recreational opportunities for those who live along its shores. However, it’s crucial for anyone boating on Lake Erie to prioritize safety. With the high frequency of boating accidents and the potential dangers associated with the lake, it’s essential to follow boating laws and regulations, obtain your boating safety certificate, monitor marine forecasts, and always have emergency equipment on board. Most importantly, consider limiting your alcohol consumption to when you are on land. By staying educated and vigilant, boaters can continue to appreciate the beauty and opportunities the lake has to offer while staying safe on the water. 

Richmond Vona is a New York Personal Injury law firm with offices in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Williamsville, and Rochester, dedicated to fighting for those injured due to the negligence of others. For more information, please fill out our online contact form or call us at 716-600-HURT. 


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