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Boating Laws & Regulations



Navigation Hazards

The Lake Patrol places black/white vertical striped buoys in areas with heavy boat traffic to advise boaters of potential navigational hazards.  The striped buoys advise the boater not to pass between the buoy and shore. The Lake Patrol is not capable of marking all navigational hazards.

Navigational hazard buoyed areas on the Iowa Great Lakes:

Big Spirit Lake: Big & Little Stoney Point, Trickle Slough
East Okoboji: Hafer Point, Narrows, Peppermint Point
West Okoboji: Fort Dodge Point, Gull Point, Manhattan Point, Pikes Point, Pillsbury Point, and Triboji Point
Silver Lake: Island

Additional hazard buoys (with an Orange diamond) may be placed between the black/white vertical striped buoy and shore to further warn the boater of the potential navigational hazard.


300 Foot Restriction

Buoys (with an orange circle and the words “300 Feet”) restrict a boat from exceeding 5 MPH within 300 feet of shore.

The 5 MPH speed restriction within 300 of shore for Dickinson County applies whether or not there is a buoy placed to mark 300-feet.

Mooring Buoy

A white buoy with a blue stripe mid-way between the top and the waterline is used for boat mooring.


Boats may not be moored and left unattended unless moored to an official mooring buoy.


Night Time Boat


There are lights on the most critical black & white hazard buoys. The white light flashes once per second from sunset to sunrise. The outer hazard navigation buoy locations with lights are:

West Okoboji: Fort Dodge Point, Gull Point (2), Manhattan Point, Pikes Point, Pillsbury Point

East Okoboji: Hafer Point, The Narrows (2), and Peppermint Point

Spirit Lake: Big Stony Point and Little Stony Point

Developing the ability to read the shorelines will help boaters anticipate potential navigational hazards. Generally, high banks will continue into the lake with deeper water -- low banks will continue into the lake with shallow water.


Scuba Diver Flag

A red flag (with a white diagonal stripe) means that dive operations are underway.


This flag warns boaters to use caution when operating within 50 feet of the diver’s flag.  Divers must stay within 100 ft. of the diver’s flag when diving.


Restricted (No Boats)

Swimming Areas

Buoys (an orange diamond with a X inside) restrict a boat from being inside the designated swimming area.

Big Spirit Lake: Ainsworth Beach, Crandall's Beach

West Okoboji: Arnolds Park City Beach, Arnolds Park Amusement Park, Camp Okoboji, Emerson Bay Beach, Gull Point Beach, The Inn, Okoboji Lutheran Bible Camp, Manhattan Resort, Methodist Camp, Pikes Point Beach, Presbyterian Camp, Terrace Park Beach, Triboji Beach


Skier Down Flag

A good safety measure is to raise an orange flag when a person that was being towed behind a boat is in the water. The flag should be up when the person is in the water and lowered when the person is being towed. This is a law in some states, but is not an Iowa law.

Additional Rules & Info:

Speed and Distance - The speed and distance restrictions control how fast and how close motorboats may be to another boat.  Boats cannot exceed five MPH within one 100 feet of another boat going five MPH or less. Boats must maintain a distance of 50 feet from each other when both boats are traveling at speeds greater than five MPH.  Boaters cannot exceed 5 mph within 300 ft of shore.

Nighttime Speed Limit - A nighttime speed limit of 25 MPH is in effect- except for emergency vessels - from one-half hour after sunset to sunrise on all Dickinson County lakes.

Personal Flotation Devices – Iowa Navigation Regulations require that all boats have one approved wearable PFD on board for each person.  The PFD must be Coast Guard approved, of the proper size to fit the user, in good working order, and readily accessible to the user.  All boats 16 feet or longer are required to have an approved type IV throwable device on board.  All persons on a Personal Water Craft MUST WEAR an approved wearable PFD.

Each person who is age 12 and under must wear a PFD while the boat is underway. Exceptions are provided when at anchor, tied to a dock, aground, in a enclosed cabin, or while on a commercial vessel with a capacity of 25 persons or more.


Iowa Mandatory Boater Education Requirement – PWC and boat operators (operating a boat with more than 10 HP) from age 12 through 17 must successfully complete an approved boat safety course before being certified to be a boat operator. Persons under 18 years of age can operate a boat or PWC, without certification, if they are accompanied on the same vessel with a responsible person of at least 18 years of age who is experienced in motorboat operation.


Congested Area – Smith’s Bay, west of the Highway #71 bridge to Pillsbury and Ft Dodge Point on West Lake Okoboji - and the area east of Highway #71 on East Lake Okoboji are heavily congested boating areas. It is recommended that skiers, tubers, and boat fisherman avoid these areas and other areas of heavy boating traffic.


Wake Courtesy – Boat wakes can be dangerous to canoes, kayaks, and small boats with a short freeboard. Sailboats can be stopped dead in their tracks with excessive boat wakes. Boat wakes can cause shoreline erosion. At medium speed a boat can create a larger wake than it would at a slower or faster speed. Boaters are responsible for the damage caused by their wakes.

Water Skiing & Tubing – A responsible observer along with the driver of the boat is required to watch the person being towed behind the boat. Persons being towed must wear an approved life jacket. While Iowa law permits skiing and tubing from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise boaters should be aware of the reduced visibility in the evening and early morning.

Safety Equipment – It is recommended that all powerboats have an approved fire extinguisher along with a sound-producing device when in operation. In addition, there should not be more persons in a boat than the boat’s rated safety capacity. 

Lights – All boats while being operated or anchored on Iowa waters from sunset to sunrise must display the proper navigational lighting for that type of boat.  Please refer to the Iowa Boating Regulations for the proper lighting for your boat.

Personal Water Craft – All persons on a PWC must be wearing a Personal Flotation Device. The number of persons onboard a PWC must not exceed its rated person capacity, including any person being towed. A PWC can not be operated after sunset or before sunrise. The operator of a PWC must comply with the Iowa Mandatory Boater Education Requirement. PWC's must follow the same water safety laws that apply to boaters.

Careless Operation – Shooting water guns at moving boats and passengers can distract the driver causing an accident or cause injury to passengers. This is particularly true in the congested areas in the Iowa Great Lakes. A person riding the bow of a moving boat may be tossed overboard by a large wave and run over before the driver has an opportunity to act.

Hypothermia – Even on hot summer days in mid summer our lakes waters rarely get above 80 degrees, which can cause someone in the water for an extended period to loose body core heat (Hypothermia). Watch for the warning signs of Hypothermia: purple lips, shivering, and the loss of the use of body extremities. For more information on Hypothermia see the WSC website.

Boating While Intoxicated - A person cannot operate a motorboat or sailboat while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or other drug or a combination of such substances. The boating blood alcohol level in Iowa is now 0.08.  Please be safe - alcohol and boats do not mix.

Weather – The safe boater should be alert to changing weather conditions. Most of the summer severe weather comes from the West. Weather information for the Iowa Great Lakes is available on Cable TV channel 21 and 23, KUOO 103.9 FM, KICD 1240 AM, or NOAA continuous weather broadcast on 162.55 MHz.

Boat Noise – All motorboats are required to have adequate muffling devices on their boat while operating on the waters in the State of Iowa. The use of a “Captains Call” switch, which diverts the exhaust engine noise above the water line, could result in a violation the motorboat noise restrictions.

Law Enforcement – State Conservation Officers employed by the Department of Natural Resources are charged with the enforcement of Iowa boating laws.  Law Enforcement boats are typically marked with "Law Enforcement" on their side and will display an emergency blue flashing light.

Accident Reporting: Whenever any boat is involved in a collision, accident or casualty, except one, which results only in property damage not exceeding $2,000 dollars, must file a report with the DNR Lake Patrol. Iowa Boat Accident Operator's Report

Communications – Emergency telephone contact for the Lake Patrol and water rescue is 911. The Lake Patrol also monitors Marine Radio channel 16 for emergency communications. Non-emergency information can be relayed to the Lake Patrol by calling the Spirit Lake Communications Center 712/ 336-2525. DNR information on docks, buoys, rafts, shoreline, fishing licenses, etc. can be obtained by calling the Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery – phone 712/ 336-1840.

If you observe careless boat operation, a telephone call can be made to the Spirit Lake Communications Center – NON emergency telephone at 712/ 336-2525.

  1. Advise the dispatcher the type of careless or illegal operation.

  2. Provide a description of the boat - type, color, number of persons, etc.

  3. Its present location and, if possible, its direction of travel.

The SL Communications Center can radio this information to the Lake Patrol boats. If the situation is more serious - rising to the nature of an emergency - a call to 911 will bring a faster response. Keep in mind the Lake Patrol will not always have a patrol boat in the area that can observe the careless operation and stop the offender.

For additional information on boating regulations visit "The Handbook of Iowa Boating Laws and Responsibilities."

Legal Requirements of Iowa Boating
- Who May Operate a Vessel:

  • Persons under 12 years of age may operate a vessel propelled by a motor of more than 10 horsepower, including a personal watercraft, only if he or she is accompanied on board by a responsible person at least 18 years old and experienced operating the vessel.

  • Persons 12 years of age or older but younger than 18 years of age may operate a vessel propelled by a motor of more than 10 horsepower, including a personal watercraft, only if he or she:

    • Has successfully completed a boater education course approved by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources or...

    • Is accompanied on board by a responsible person at least 18 years old and experienced operating the vessel

  • Persons required to have successfully completed a boating safety course must carry their boater education certificate on board and make it available upon request of an enforcement officer.

Iowa Boater Education Certificate.JPG

There are two ways a person can earn an education certificate:

  1. Take an Iowa DNR Home-Study Boating Education Course. To request materials contact

  2. Take an online course at

Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning:

Carbon Monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced when any carbon-based fuel is burned. As a result of CO concentrations in the air, early symptoms include drowsiness, headaches, nausea, dizziness, irritated eyes and weakness. These early symptoms are often confused with sea sickness, but with extremely high concentrations or prolonged durations of exposure the result can be death.

On a boat there are numerous sources of CO, such as a gasoline engine, gasoline generator, propane, and charcoal. These are fuels that we depend on to get us to and from our destination, keep us cool, provide electricity, and heat or cool our food.

CO becomes dangerous when it collects within and around a boat. CO can enter a cabin of a boat from different sources including: hot water heaters, galley stoves, improper ventilation while in motion (the “station wagon effect”), and exhaust leaks in your boat as well as from moored boats nearby. CO can collect in areas around a boat such as: near the swim platform, which is generally found close to the engine exhaust, and areas where boat overhangs can create pockets of air

Teak Surfing or Dragging is a new activity where a swimmer holds on to the swim platform while the boat drags them through the water. This activity puts a person in direct proximity to extremely high concentrations of CO as well as a moving propeller.

Some Simple Precautions can be taken to avoid exposure to CO:

  • Avoid known locations where the gas can be present.

  • Have regular maintenance done on your engine and exhaust system by a trained technician.

  • Install a CO detector in the cabin of a boat.

  • Be aware that CO can accumulate when a boat is running its engine or generator while at a dock or seawall.

  • Open hatches and keep fresh air circulating throughout the boat to avoid exhaust fumes from reentering the aft part of the boat – the station wagon effect.

  • Turn off the engine or generator when people swim near the boat. Take your passengers water skiing instead of teak surfing.

  • Be aware that if a passenger has the symptoms of seasickness it could be CO poisoning and they should immediately be moved to fresh air.

  • Get a vessel safety check.

Please refer to Iowa boating laws and the Administrative Code of Iowa for more specific information.

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