A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

Mandatory Boater Education: The Devil is in the Details

Who isn’t in favor of having more knowledgeable, better informed boaters on the water?  To oppose that is a little like being against motherhood, apple pie and the American flag. But California is now approaching an important cross-roads for future recreational boating.

The machinery is already in motion to pen new statewide legislation that would enact mandatory boater education.  Although the proposed law is presently in very rough draft form and still seeking a sponsor to champion the cause through the state legislature, there’s already concern among the Southern California marine trade community that a bureaucratic bungle must be avoided at all cost.

The Board of Directors of the Southern California Marine Association, one of the largest regional marine trade associations in the country, debated this issue and has decided to support the principal parts of the Boating Safety Law as communicated in a recent letter to California’s Department of Boating and Waterways director, Raynor Tsuneyoshi, but reserves the option to take exception to individual items within the legislation as the process goes forward.

Among its primary concerns are the absence of details on how the actual mechanics of processing and administrating the mandatory education will take place.  SCMA is apprehensive that the Department of Motor Vehicles will inherit these duties, creating an even greater governmental log-jam for an agency that’s already far over-burdened.

If this occurs, it is estimated that nearly 4 million boaters will be forced to march through the doors of the DMV to endure endless lines and mountains of red-tape to take a written test in order to secure a boat operator’s certificate, something highly counter-productive to our industry’s current “Grow Boating Initiative.”

Safer boating is something we all want, but is passing a multiple choice written test our wisest and most cost effective means to this end?  Have other states with mandatory boating education laws experienced significant declines in boating accident and fatality statistics? Or are there other better options like increasing on-water law enforcement and encouraging more aggressive industry-sponsored education programs?

Dave Geoffroy
SCMA Executive Director


11 comments on “Mandatory Boater Education: The Devil is in the Details

  1. Stan Underwood

    I am managing the only marina on the third-largest lake in the state of California. I also registered my own boat yesterday afternoon at the Fresno, Calif. DMV.

    I can tell you that the boaters here are aware of the rules of the road and basic rights-of-way. But like auto and truck drivers here, they are all too self-centered to care about anyone but themselves. We’ve had dead children brought in here after boating accidents last summer. We’ve had to rescue survivors of jet-ski collisions.

    They know the rules, but like the guy who ran a red light in front of me this afternoon, they simply don’t care. And forcing them to go through the DMV will be a mess. Simply registering a boat and paying cash at the window is already an exercise in frustration.

    The costs will be high, and the benefits minimum.

  2. Capt Russ Cohen


    I totally agree with you that the DMV should not be involved with administering the testing. NJ just passed a similar law and the boating safety certificate can be issued by a number of private schools that meet the NJ State Police qualifications as well as the USCG Auxiliary and the US Power Squadron. You will probably see declines in accidents and fatalities, but, I also agree that the better option for all of us in the Marine Industry and the recreational boater as well, would be to promote “Hands-On” Education in boating by professional Captains who have teaching experience, tested personalities and skills and an organized curriculum to follow.

    The fact is Dave, many dealers are NOT in favor of more knowledgeable, better informed boaters on the water. I’ve been calling on dealers for over 5 years now to promote my “Hands-On” training courses and many could care less! They just want to sell the boat and get the acceptance form signed. In fact, I’ve had several dealers tell me their repair business would be hurt if boaters knew what they were doing! Some are so stupid!

    More dealers than not still have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to education. You should ask your membership just how much time they spend with a customer on delivering a new or used boat? Do they promote hiring a professional Captain for On-Water Training? Do they explain that a boat is a piece of machinery and operating this machinery must be learned by “practical” experience as well as classroom knowledge.

    I’ve tried numerous times with non-profit organizations like the NMMA, NSBC, NASBLA as well as manufacturers like Bayliner, Maxum, Sea Ray and many more and they don’t really promote any kind of “Hands-On” training either. They’ll tell you it’s the dealer’s responsibility! Why do people think they can buy a boat and they’ll know how to boat?

    Lastly, what makes me laugh is how the Snow-Ski and the Golf industry, two sports that compete with boating and are winning, both have schools for “Hands-On” training right on the premises front and center. Where’s our Marine Industry schools? Last time I checked if you were bad at Golf, you probably were not going to kill anybody, but, if you’re bad at boating……..well, you get the idea!

    Thanks, take care and as always, we’ll see Ya On The Water!

    Capt. Russ Cohen, Founder & President

    E: russ@boatboymarinetraining.com
    W: http://www.boatboymarinetraining.com
    P: 800-493-9514 Toll-free
    C: 856-986-8700
    F: 856-234-2544
    M: Corporate Address: PO Box 847
    Moorestown, NJ 08057

  3. Jim Burroughs

    It sounds to me like things are different in New Jersey than on Lake Erie and northern Ohio. In one of the premier boating areas in the world, all local dealers promote and are active in boating safety. We work closely with the local Coast Guard and their auxiliary; and post their times and places as they announce their yearly safety training courses. We even let them use our facilities at no cost for safety training seminars and ask our factory reps to visit from time to time for updates on such things as marine electronics and navigation aids. Our marine trades organization works tirelessly on marine safety promotion not only in Ohio, but throughout the country.
    As a marine professional for over 25 years, I would never ever consider delivering a boat to a new owner without a complete, I repeat COMPLETE, in-water test and explanation of the product. Nor would any of the dealers in our part of the world–it just isn’t done.
    You are either visiting the wrong dealers or have been misinformed–or as I said before, things are just different in your part of the boating world.

  4. Capt. Phil LeBlanc

    I applaud the efforts of any state to enact mandatory boater education legislation. As a professional salvor and marine tower, I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Coast Guard when we’re called to respond to the tragedies caused by inexperience and inattention. RI requires boater education for anyone born after January 1, 1986 who operates a vessel with an engine of 10hp or greater, as well as anyone operating a PWC.

    While I can’t quote the accident statistics, I can tell you that we are slowly beginning to see improvements. In my opinion, looking for accidents, injuries, and deaths to instantly and steadily decline is setting the bar far too high. These things may or may not come with time, but what is immediately evident is that educated boaters are approaching boating with a far greater respect, and with more knowledge than they otherwise would have had. Simply keeping a chart onboard, having a VHF radio and knowing how to use it, understanding “Red Right Returning”, and realizing the other standard basics of boating goes an incredibly long way in keeping recreational boaters safe.

    I think that if we keep our expectations reasonable we will soon begin to see that the benefits of any education whatsoever are more far-reaching than we could have ever possibly hoped.

    Capt. Phil LeBlanc
    Safe/Sea Marine Rescue

  5. George C. Horwatt

    Where does all this stuff stop and why does every bureaucrat look at boaters like they’re all idots in need of them? This stuff no matter how subtle has a cost incurred to someone. These self proclaimed expert regulators all need something to do to justify their existence, all while we have to pay for their salaries and benefits. Bottom line is the monies earmarked for all this crap would be better served by more water law enforcement on statewide levels.

  6. Roger Field

    We have been in the business of training men and women in both power boating and sailing for 35 years. Safety is stressed in each of our many career-oriented and recreational programs. As our “Learn at the Helm” theme suggests, we believe strongly in underway and hands-on training under the coaching of USCG licensed captains with proven teaching skills. Mandatory education programs currently in vogue lack underway and hands-on components but they are better than no formal boat training at all,

  7. Capt. Jim Battye

    The paltry “education” provided by the boating safety course can be viewed in two ways, each having some merit:
    1) Something is better than nothing; and
    2) A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    I think that the boating safety course has two major flaws:
    1) It is all theory; there is no training.
    2) It is really not about boating, in essence.

    Wearing a life jacket is not boating.
    Using a VHF radio is not boating.
    Being sober is not boating. Nor is being drunk.
    Lighting a flare is not boating.
    Using a fire extinguisher is not boating.
    Backing up a trailer is not boating.
    Floating in the HUDDLE position is not boating.
    Getting a weather forecast is not boating.

    All these things are in the boating safety course. Though most can be done while boating, they are all not boating.

    Boating – Controlling a boat to move the boat or hold position in some combination of wind, waves, and current, by skilfully using some combination of wheel (tiller, handlebar), throttle, shifter, oars, paddle(s), and sail(s), and sometimes anchor, lines, and pilings. These are all applied skill sets which require some degree of proficiency.

    Since boating is not taught in the boating safety course, the boating safety course is really not about boating. The boating safety course, by implying that it’s about boating, grossly misleads the uninformed. How to safely control a boat is one of the few things vaguely related to boating that the boating safety course won’t touch…and the teachers of the course won’t tell you that.

    I believe that a boat is a machine, and that basic skill in operating the boat (the one necessary element of boating) is essential to any meaningful understanding of safety…just as it is with cars, planes, fork lifts, front-end loaders, chain saws, motorcycles, etc. etc. etc.

    Too many pleasure boaters never get proficient enough at boating to enjoy it, and they leave boating, as a result.

  8. Dan Jarzynski

    I know the how you feel….. we in Maryland were the first in the nation to mandate boater education. 1987 It must be done like we did it. In Maryland any boater born after july 1, 1972 must be able to show proof of a safe boat operators class (basic). USCG Aux, Power Sqd, Maryland basic boating, any NASBLA approved course. You are not going to fix the problem right away… you didn’t get in the problem (uneducated boaters) overnight so you can’t fix the problem overnight. The schools offer courses as extra credit. All of our county recs and parks offer coures as well as above. It is administered by ONE person within our Department of Natural resources. Call them talk to Ann Rogers 410.260.3280

  9. Capt. Jim Battye

    Dan, you are correct. You can’t fix the problem overnight. But, there’s one thing you can do overnight. You can mandate that in every boater safety course, the students are told the following three things:

    1) A boat is a machine;

    2) Basic skills in operating a boat are necessary to safety; and

    3) Classroom courses do not teach those skills.

    The Boating Law Administrator of Alaska, Jeff Johnson (also the NASBLA President) did exactly that; he mandated that those three things be said in every boating safety class in Alaska. So, at least Alaskans know that the boating safety course does not teach boating skills.

  10. Capt. Jim Battye

    Who doesn’t favor more knowledgeable boaters on the water? Here’s part of what Capt Bob Armstrong said, in another thread:

    Despite the industry’s long-standing insistance (at least in certain quarters) that education is a deterrent to sales…maybe, if enough people holler about the value of hands-on education, we’ll see it happen one of these days in our industry as well.

    Capt. Bob Armstrong
    Tired old boating writer & captain

    So, some quarters of the industry have long insisted that education deters sales. That’s not the pro-education slam-dunk that you presume. So, what’s the truth?

  11. Andrew

    ONe ting yhou should all consider:

    The United States is the only 1st and 2nd wolrd country in the world that DOES NOT REQUIRE recreational boaters to get formal training and a license.

    I would argue boating fatalities will increase because most recreatioanl boaters are not trained in safety and and rely on GPS Maps for their navigation. I can sum it up this way from a real life account:

    While at a recent boat show I overheard two boater (in NJ) at a local boat show. The two boaters were having a conversation that stated this verbatim:

    Boater #1 “You know what I love about being on the water?”
    Boater #2 “What’s that?”
    Boater #1 “There are no rules out there–you are free to to do absolutely anything
    you want when you want.”
    Boater #1 “Yeah baby–that’s right.”

    In my opinion, we need some sort of licensing (not safe boating certificates) and a strong enforcement presence

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