Globe Editorial

After marine accidents, need for boater ed comes to the fore

July 14, 2010

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FOR A state with 1,500 miles of coastline and many lakes and rivers, Massachusetts is surprisingly lax about requiring safety education for boaters. Flotillas of commercial and recreational craft ply the waterways each day, usually without running into each other or running aground. But recent accidents in Boston and Philadelphia show the need for vigilance and safety training — not just by commercial captains but by everyone who operates motorized watercraft.

On July 4, a whale watch boat operated by Massachusetts Bay Lines ran aground outside Boston Harbor after straying from a clearly marked channel. Six of the 174 passengers were hurt. The captain has surrendered his license pending an investigation by the Coast Guard. The July 7 incident in Philadelphia ended tragically when two passengers died aboard a duck boat that collided with a barge on the Delaware River.

These incidents involved vessels with captains whose livelihoods depend on their adherence to safety rules. If bad luck or even a moment’s inattention by experienced commercial captains can lead to injury or death on the water, then what about the thousands of recreational crafts with skippers whose only credential is the credit card they used to buy the boat?

There are no mandatory safety courses required of those operating more than 139,000 motor boats in Massachusetts, with the exception of solo operators ages 12 to 15. The days are long gone when most boaters received their safety lessons from families in the maritime trades. Today’s boaters need solid information about safety equipment, weather emergencies, navigational aids, and other essentials of safe boating. And such information is available at little cost in the form of 8-to-10 hour courses from the Massachusetts Environmental Police and other agencies. Yet few boaters take advantage.

Police routinely ask boaters involved in accidents if they have completed a safety course. Usually the answer is no. So far this year, 11 recreational boaters in Massachusetts have died in accidents on the water, according to Lieutenant Merri Walker of the state’s Environmental Police.

Many states require boaters to earn safety certificates before venturing out. New Hampshire bases the requirement on engine size. Connecticut requires it of every operator regardless of age or engine size. A bill similar to Connecticut’s sponsored by Representative Paul Kujawski of Webster is making its way slowly through the Massachusetts Legislature. The quicker it passes, the safer our waterways.

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