Boating dangers, accidents on rise
Alcohol, lack of training cited
It was a beautiful night for boating. The air was cool and breezy and the clouds that had dotted the southern Maine sky for most of the afternoon were gone, revealing sparkles of light from the Perseid meteor shower.
Raye Trott and his girlfriend, Suzanne Groetzinger, were on Long Lake, riding in his 14-foot fiberglass motorboat.
Then a 32-foot speedboat, powered by twin 435-horsepower engines, slammed into their vessel, slicing it in half and killing Trott and Groetzinger. The owner of the speedboat, Robert Lapointe, 38, and his companion, Nicole Randall, 19, were thrown into the water and swam to safety. Lapointe's speedboat was going so fast it flew out of the water and landed 130 feet into the woods.
The violent crash last Saturday and other recent accidents have cast a pall over New England's summer boating season and fueled debate about whether boating has lost its course.
Some boaters say the once idyllic pastime has become a dangerously lawless sport of sailors with too much alcohol and too little training captaining vessels with ever more powerful engines. At the same time, law enforcement officials say they have too few officers to adequately patrol New England's thousands of lakes and hundreds of miles of coastline.
Crash statistics show a growing problem. Nationally, the number of boating deaths, injuries, and incidents of property damage increased for the second consecutive year in 2006, according to the Coast Guard.
Seventy percent of the 710 boaters killed in 2006 were on vessels captained by sailors with no formal training. Inattention, recklessness, and excessive speed were the main causes of all boating accidents.
Boats crashing into other boats were the most common type of accident. And alcohol was the main factor in fatal accidents, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all boating deaths.
The problems are all too common in New England, sailors and law enforcement officials say.
On Sunday, a family of four was riding in a 12-foot skiff off Martha's Vineyard when an out-of-control jet ski driven by an 11-year-old boy and his 6-year-old friend slammed into them, capsizing the boat and plunging everyone into the water.
Anne Davey, 37, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two, was knocked unconscious. Police gave the 11-year-old a written warning for violating the state law that requires operators of personal watercraft to be at least 16 and have completed a safety course. They fined his parents $100 for allowing him to operate the craft without supervision.
Local sailors say they see inexperienced boaters every time they boat.
"Probably half the boaters don't have a clue what they're doing," said Tommy Gardner, 66, of Weymouth, captain of a 46-foot SeaRay named What's Next? who was on the boardwalk at Marina Bay in Quincy earlier this week. "It's every time you go out. You just have to fend for yourself."
Harriet Weinfield, 70, whose 32-foot motorboat, Vintage Wein, is moored at Marina Bay, said boaters must be vigilant to avoid the chaos.
"You always have to keep an eye out," Weinfield said as she cleaned the boat. "They think they're out there and there's no roads or signs, so they'll cut you off. People should get licenses. They should have tests."
Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the three New England states that do not require adult boaters to pass a safety course, allowing even novice sailors to grab the throttle of a speedboat that can go faster than 100 miles per hour.
"If you have the money, you can buy the toy," said Gloucester Harbormaster James Caulkett. He is vice president of the Massachusetts Harbormasters Association, which is pushing legislation that would require boaters to pass a safety course.
Officials also point to the lack of enforcement. The Maine Warden Service says it has 125 wardens to patrol nearly 6,000 lakes and ponds and 32,000 miles of rivers and streams. The New Hampshire Marine Patrol Bureau says it has 100 officers to patrol the coast and 975 lakes and ponds over 10 acres in size. The Massachusetts Environmental Police says it has 100 officers to patrol waterways from the Berkshires to Cape Cod.
"There is never enough," said Captain George Agganis of the Massachusetts Environmental Police. "Our numbers really need to increase on coastal areas."
Frustrated by the lack of law enforcement and shaken by crashes and near misses, boaters on Little Sebago Lake in Maine have formed their own citizen patrol. Led by Suzanne LaMontagne, a dental hygienist and water skier, they painted "Safety Patrol," on the side of a 24-foot motorboat and outfitted it with a blue light, 20 life jackets, a first aid kit, binoculars, and cameras.
Friday evenings and weekends, they cruise the lake, wearing blue shirts and caps emblazoned with the words "Safety Patrol," and ask boaters to slow down and pay attention. Recently, they advised a teenage boater towing a teenage water-skier that he needed a third boater acting as a lookout.
If they witness something egregious, they say they will summon the police, but that has not happened so far this summer.
"It's just risky to be out there, it really is," LaMontagne said. "My idea is just to make people slow down and think and maybe prevent an accident."
Investigators are still trying to determine what caused last Saturday's crash on Long Lake that killed Trott, 55, a blues guitarist from Naples, Maine, and Groetzinger, 44, a mother of three from Berwick, Maine. Officials have not said whether Lapointe, of Medway, or Randall, of Bridgton, Maine, were drinking or speeding or if Trott's boat had its lights on.
"I would hope that people in the communities in southern Maine take a long hard look at this and come to some sort of consensus to support enhanced enforcement or maybe actually restrict watercraft size and motor size," said Lieutenant Patrick Dorian of the Maine Warden Service.
Globe correspondent April Yee contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.