Time for a boat operator’s license?

Two weeks ago the local yacht club invited the harbormaster and fire department to speak to the sailing instructors about how to handle emergencies on the water. The assistant harbormaster — who has personally and justifiably pulled me over and chewed me out in the past for speeding across the harbor while running a race — made a great comment that started me thinking: “You go in, you pay your money, your check clears, and they hand you the keys and that’s it. No license, no training, no nothing … and you’re boating.”

What isn’t funny is the Fourth of July tragedy on Long Island that left three children dead after an overloaded boat (Silverton 34) swamped and sank in 20 feet of water. Obviously that accident has me thinking about a licensing system for boat operators.  I have no knowledge of the person who owned that boat and allowed more than 20 people to crowd onto it, but a system that permits that kind of negligence is one that sets people up to fail in the first place.  There are no regulations governing the passenger capacity of a boat that size, according to the New York Times (there are Coast Guard passenger limits in effect for smaller boats), but there are for commercial vessels such as ferries and launches.

I’m as libertarian as the next person and need another government issued license or registration like I need more taxes and bureaucrats, but the reality is that bad boaters not only put themselves and their passengers at risk, they can also wipe out an innocent swimmer or a rule-abiding mariner in an instant.  The old barriers to boating were considerable. Boats were wooden, expensive, and too heavy to easily trailer in and out of the water.  Today we have “PWCs” — personal watercraft — from jetskis to strange hybrid boats made by skimobile manufacturers. The waters are more crowded, the speeds and blood alcohol contents are both higher ……

If you consider the difficulty a commercial captain faces in getting a Coast Guard license — hours of classroom study, memorization of navigational light patterns, navigation, safety regulations — then why isn’t there anything in place for the average recreational boater?  I can’t go out and buy a Piper Cub and start flying it without a license. I can’t drive a car without one. Why should I be able to fire up a big powerboat, load it up with 30 people,and drive it around in the dark without someone giving me a simple test?

I hate legislators who want to make the wearing of lifejackets mandatory. Every so often some poor kayaker flips and drowns and a local state rep files a bill to make lifejackets a requirement. Yet I wear one because I don’t want to be that guy they find with his zipper down, drowned a mile off the beach because I went over the rail while relieving myself during a moonlight sail.  The majority of boaters abide by the rules, take courses from the Coast Guard auxiliary, and make sure their boats are equipped with the proper lights, flares, PFDs, and other safety equipment. But all it takes is one idiot and headlines are made.

I’ve been on boats that have gone wrong and seen how bad things can get. I laugh at the pictures of the boats stuck on jetties after their clueless owners run into them in the darkness, find YouTube videos of boat ramp bloopers as amusing as the next guy, but a lot of it could be avoided if states would start to extend their boating licensing laws to cover adults. Most have a requirement that underage operators complete a boating safety course and get a safety certificate. But in New York, page 39 of the Safe Boating manual states:

“Adults 18 years of age and older may operate a mechanically
propelled vessel without an approved boating safety certificate.”

I think it’s time to license adult operators as well.