A well-intentioned but irredeemably flawed law recently signed by Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone would require nearly all residents to earn a certificate by taking a safety course and passing an exam in order to operate a power boat. Those who head out on the water without a certificate would be fined $250 for a first offense.
The requirement is, as East Hampton’s head harbormaster recently put it, long overdue. But how the tens of thousands of recreational boaters in the county would be accommodated and how the law’s built-in conflict with state regulatory authority could be resolved remains to be seen. The prospects are not reassuring.
There is a need, to be sure. For example, a badly overloaded boat led to the deaths of three children in Huntington in July. In 2009, three died and four were seriously injured when a boat ran aground at high speed near Jones Beach. For the past several years small-boat fishermen have thrown caution to the wind (and waves) while angling around Montauk Point, with several near collisions and capsized boats the result. East End marine patrols respond not infrequently to reports of boats aground or on the jetties. Time and again, too many recreational boaters show over-reliance on horsepower, high-tech electronics, and an “it-can’t-happen-to-me” attitude, as Coast Guard records attest. Simply put, common sense is not always common at sea.
Some critics of the measure say the county has overstepped by trying to get around state law, which requires certificates only for those under 18 who run power boats and everyone who uses a personal watercraft, like the Jet Ski brand. The Suffolk law also tries to extend the county’s authority over state and town trustee waters, a power-grab that could well be challenged in court.
Under state law, young people who operate motorboats must obtain certificates by attending a $60 eight-hour course and passing an exam. It, too, requires certificates of all who operate personal watercraft. Compare this to the five-hour class required for a license to drive a car. Multiply this by the thousands of boaters who will need a certificate by a year from now — when the law is to go into effect — and you’ve got an ocean-size logistical challenge.
The immediate difficulty would be for organizations like the United States Power Squadron, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and New York Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation to come up with enough programs that are reasonably accessible even out at the far end of the twin forks fast enough to serve the county’s estimated 75,000 to 100,000 recreational boaters. The law does not provide for establishing classes or dealing with those many residents who passed a safety course as children but long ago lost their certificates.
The county is to be commended for trying to take a first step toward safer boating, but the difficulty in implementing the law and resolving its inherent conflict with the state is formidable. Unfortunately, the Legislature provided neither guidance nor funding to help make this possible. The best that can be hoped is for Albany to reconsider the issue and to put into place a statewide boater-education program accessible to all.