Gustavson Column: Boating safety course leaves plenty to be desired

06/22/2013 8:00 AM |
TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | Boaters enjoying a day out on the Peconic Bay last summer.

TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | Boaters enjoying a day out on the Peconic Bay last summer.

At the risk of receiving an “F” on my final exam, I am compelled to take this occasion to express my deep personal reservations about the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary boating safety course currently being offered — if paying $50 to take a mandatory course can be considered “offering” it — at Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library.

First, a little background. On July 4, 2012, a 34-foot cabin cruiser with 27 passengers aboard capsized in Oyster Bay, L.I., killing three children, ages 8, 11 and 12. The man said to be piloting the boat had “over 25 years of experience on the water, said Michael Treanor, the brother of the owner of the boat,” according to The New York Times.

That the boat was seriously, perhaps even criminally, overloaded was never in doubt. Neither was the dubious judgment of the skipper and the adults who voluntarily came aboard with their children.

What is in serious doubt, however, is the ensuing overreaction of the Suffolk County Legislature, which subsequently passed legislation effectively requiring all county residents operating “a pleasure vessel upon the waters of Suffolk County” to take an 11-hour boating safety course and pass a final exam before being issued a boating safety certificate by “the Commission of the NYS Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; by the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary; or by any other entity that offers a boating course that meets the standards set by the National Association of Boating Law Administrators.”

I take no issue with the idea of requiring a certificate (read: license) to operate a boat in Suffolk. But why are my fellow classmates and I being asked to give up 11 hours over two consecutive Mondays to take a test the majority of us could have passed, I would argue, with little or no advance preparation. It’s like asking someone who has driven a car for 25 years to go back and apply for their learner’s permit and pass the road test and the written test before getting back behind the wheel.

With no disrespect intended toward any of our very knowledgeable Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer instructors, I imagine several of those attending the class could have been teaching it, based on their decades of operating boats — some for the U.S. military, others as commercial captains.

The reasonable thing to have done would be to require passage of a boat operator’s test — without the unreasonable classroom component. Then, and only then, require the classroom component if the applicant fails the test.

On Monday, during our first classroom session, some very useful information — dealing mostly with rules of navigation — was imparted. But an excruciating amount of time was spent on decidedly esoteric and marginal matters such as the difference between a sloop and a ketch and the fact that some PWCs (Personal Water Crafts; read: Jet Skis) actually can go backwards. (I, for one, did not know that fascinating fact!)

And here’s another consideration: Under the terms of the new law, non-Suffolk County residents will be allowed to operate boats in Suffolk County without certification even if their boats are registered in the county.

But if you own a boat and are a resident of Suffolk County, the following will come as decidedly sobering news: You have until Sept. 13 of this year to obtain your boating safety certificate/license. After that date, you could be fined $250 for a first offense, $500 for a second offense and $1,000 for a third offense. And, oh yes, you could go to jail for up to a year for that third offense.

And so it is that I will attend class again next Monday morning, if somewhat reluctantly.

As my longtime editor, the former Joan Giger Walker, points out, the opinions expressed above are decidedly debatable. To wit: if a road test is required to operate a car, why not a water test to operate a boat? Accordingly, those holding opposing points of view are hereby invited to express them to me at tgustavson@timesreview.com.

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