I’m writing this week’s column for a particular type of boater. The type who considers it to be a good day if they ran aground a few times, but only had to call Sea Tow once. The type who considers it to be a good day if they had only five people flip them off. The type who considers it to be a good day if they put a small ding in the gelcoat while docking and didn’t even break a piling.
If this sounds like one of your boating adventures, read on. (And if you know someone who fits the description, feel free to pass this on to them.)
Over the past few weeks, I have spent almost every day on or near the water. After encountering knucklehead after knucklehead (that’s a person who should not be operating a vessel on our waterways), I think to myself that things can’t get any worse. Unfortunately, the next day, they do. With our population exploding and boat sales at record highs we are experiencing our own very unique epidemic out on the water, and the only cure is education.
Welcome to Florida boating, y’all — no driving experience necessary (day or night), no skills test with an on-the-water examiner to observe you. It’s not like boats are dangerous. They have no airbags, brakes or restraining devices. Passengers (other than young children) don’t have to wear life jackets, and they can even have alcohol onboard. Are you frightened yet? I’m not; I’m terrified.
Here in Florida if you were born after Jan. 1, 1988, and will be operating a vessel with an engine of 10 hp or more, the law requires that you invest a few hours to complete an approved boating safety course (which can even be accomplished online). Passing the test gets you a Florida Boating Safety ID.
As a USCG-licensed captain with over 39 years of experience, I cannot comprehend how we find this requirement even remotely adequate to allow a vessel operator to drive a boat on our waterways. You can legally operate a boat with zero experience and zero proof that you know anything about them. Would you feel safe on the roads if we treated driving the same way?
To operate a vessel safely, the operator (captain) must possess a level of knowledge far beyond what’s required to safely drive a vehicle. Here’s a list of what they must understand:
• The basic Rules of the Nautical Road, as required by the United States Coast Guard
• The buoy systems in place here in Southwest Florida, such as the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities System (IALA) as well as the Intracoastal Waterway System
• Weather prediction
• Boat construction basics, and how all of a boat’s systems work
• Lookout requirements
• Docking and undocking techniques
• VHF radio operations, including use of the DSC system for issuing an emergency distress call
• Trailering a vessel and launching/recovering it at a boat ramp (if applicable)
• How to fuel a vessel
• How to safely plan a voyage from one place to another (without calling a towing service)
In addition to this basic knowledge, a vessel operator must have high situational awareness (while avoiding sensory overload), good decision-making skills, be confident of what to do in an emergency and, finally, understand what it means to be a responsible vessel operator.
My list could go on for another paragraph or two, but I think you get my drift. We have a problem here, folks.
Unfortunately (and I recognize I’m unavoidably going to hurt a few feelings here), most of the people driving boats on our waterways know nothing or nearly nothing about the requirements to safely operate a vessel. Worse yet, they have a boatload of people who are counting on the “captain” to get them home with no dents and no scratches to both the boat and their bodies.
If you fall into the above category, please do yourself and the rest of Florida a favor. Find a licensed and certified USCG instructor and take a real boating class that includes both classroom and on-the-water training. With the infusion of thousands of new boat owners navigating on our waterways with little to no experience, we have a very serious problem that we all need to help solve. Education: Get some.