"The boat was out of sight. I didn't know it was there."
You've come out of a long no-wake zone and are raring to hit the throttles. You give a 360-degree scan of the water before powering up but don't see the fisherman in a small skiff inside a cove off the channel just beyond the "Resume Normal Operation" sign. Coming onto plane, your boat lays down a huge wake. You don't see it happen, but the angler in the cove is standing with his back to the channel, gets caught off guard, and is thrown overboard, breaking his arm in the process. One of his passengers takes down your boat name and a couple of weeks later, the injured owner notifies you of his intent to sue. He says your boat is listed in an official police report that lists an eyewitness who saw your boat throwing up the large wake. You counter that you were in a stretch of water without posted speed or wake restrictions and therefore can't be held accountable.
The Law: Once again, there's that catchall rule of reckless or careless operation that puts you behind the legal eight ball. According to Maritime Law and Practice, federal law considers it "grossly negligent operation" when there is actual endangerment of life, limb, or property. The Florida statute, however, says you could be found guilty of reckless operation if your conduct is "likely to endanger" life, limb, or property. This includes making waves. So you could be in trouble.
"There are several cases where people throwing wakes are forced to pay up," says Wenner. "The courts have upheld these many times."
Most states have a law that makes this clear: All boat operators are responsible for operating their vessel in a reasonable and prudent manner with regard to other vessel traffic so as not to endanger people or property. "Even if you think you're abiding by the law," says Lennon, "it doesn't take away the 'reasonable and prudent' factors."
Protect Yourself: You'll throw less of a wake for less time, and save money on gas, if you firewall those throttles, then ease off as you approach cruising speed. The worst wake speeds are usually between 6 and 22 mph. If you're already on plane and want to pass a boat without rocking it, you have two choices: Remain on a fast plane and stay as far away as possible, or come off plane at least 100 yards from the other boat, idle past, and don't resume speed until you're sure you're safely past the other boat.