Stateline Story

Most States Easier on Boaters Than Motorists

  • June 03, 1999
  • By Blair S. Walker

WASHINGTON -- All states have minimum age requirements for motor vehicle operators and demand that they have driver's licenses.

But when it comes to most states and their maritime laws, almost anything goes.

Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington have no minimum age law for operating motor-powered vessels, according to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA).

Thus it would be perfectly legal for a 10-year-old with no maritime training to board a 40-foot cabin cruiser in those 15 states and motor off into the sunset.

In 14 of those states, it would be lawful for the youthful mariner to sail alone. Only South Carolina stipulates that an adult be present when a minor is piloting a motor-operated vessel.

Just four states -- Alabama, Connecticut, Indiana and New Jersey -- require mandatory operator licensing for watercraft, according to the NASBLA. If that total seems low, consider that in 1988 no states had a requirement.

"Boating ought to be a way to escape the pressures of the world. But what legislators need to understand is that the greatest threat to enjoyment of the water to carefree fishing and water skiing, to sailing and boat riding is not exessive legislation but unsafe boaters. Reasonable regulation is a way to protect freedom, not to infringe it," The Charlotte Observer said in a 1998 editorial.

States would like to achieve more homogenous boating regulations, but doing so isn't easy, Coast Guard Capt. Michael Holmes says.

"All these boating states are working hard to get uniformity among these laws," he says. "But there are a lot of issues, like funding," that make that difficult. "And in many cases, these regulations are controlled by the state legislature, so even if you start out with a model act, it could wind up being something quite different" by the time lawmakers are finished.

According to the Coast Guard, 819 people died in recreational boating accidents in 1997, the last year for which statistics are available. That compares with 709 in 1996 and 830 in 1995.

Florida was the state with the most deaths, which recorded 67 in 1997, the last year for which Coast Guard statistics are available. California was second with 42 deaths in 1997, New York was third with 37, Louisiana fourth with 31 and Georgia fifth with 27.

The leading cause of death in recreational boating accidents is drowning, according to Holmes. He says many fatalities could be avoided if a life vest, also known as a personal floatation device (PFD), had been worn.

Yet Hawaii, Idaho and Wyoming don't require boaters to wear PFDs, not even children. Nebraska only requires PFDs for boaters under 12 and for water skiers. In Mississippi, floatation devices are only mandatory for boaters 12 or younger on boats less than 26 feet in length, and then only when the vessel is under way.

Fines for not wearing required life vests also vary dramatically, too. Lacking a required PFD will cost you a $500 fine in Maryland, $37.50 in Vermont and $25 in Pa. -- plus $10 for each required life jacket not present.

0ne reason watercraft are difficult to regulate is because so many different types ply our lakes, bays, rivers, creeks and oceans. States have to ride herd over canoes, bass boats, skiffs, sail and powerboats, all of which have different performance characteristics and safety requirements.

Then there's a category that tends to be a regulatory headache for states: highly maneuverable personal watercraft, the loud, colorful seagoing motorcycles that carry one or two people and flit across waves at speeds up to 65 mph.

Personal watercraft account for only 10 percent of vessels on the water, but are involved in 40 percent of the accidents, says John Johnson of Lexington, KY-based NASBLA.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who owns five personal watercraft known as Jet-Skis, fumes over a 1998 state law imposing restrictions on the use of personal watercraft and placing a $50 surcharge on each. A recent Minnesota Public Radio-St. Paul Pioneer Press poll indicated 64 percent of Minnesotans believe personal watercraft are annoying and should be restricted.

"If you start doing it to one particular watercraft, then you will certainly down the line be seeing special laws for other particular watercraft," Ventura groused. "And I think that if you look at that poll, the majority of those people have probably never been on" personal watercraft.

Boaters don't want states to impose more rules and regulations, says Johnson. "There are many who see boating as the last bastion of individuality," says the NASBLA official, whose non-profit organization seeks reciprocity and uniformity among the 50 states.

"Although we and the Coast Guard treat (boating) as just another form of transportation, most people don't ride in a boat to get from one place to another," says Johnson. "It's a form of recreation."

The Coast Guard's Holmes singled out Massachusetts as having an innovative boating while intoxicated law that assesses points against a drunken sailor's driver's license. Utah was cited as having an excellent personal watercraft course for minors.

Utah and Connecticut have also made tremendous strides in reducing personal watercraft accidents, according to Johnson, while Alabama was praised for its maritime operators licensing program.

Among the boating legislation introduced in statehouses around the country:

  • Members of Washington's senate passed a bill requiring young boaters to wear life jackets, but a measure calling for mandatory education failed.
  • South Carolina, which has nearly 338,000 registered boats, passed legislation cracking down on drunken and reckless boaters.
  • West Virginia passed a new law requiring operators of personal watercraft and certain boats to obtain a certificate of boating safety education.
  • Louisiana legislators have introduced at least seven bills that would affect, among other things, personal watercraft and water-skiing hours of operation.

With recreational boating picking up dramatically with the Memorial Day weekend and continuing until Labor Day or thereafter, boating safety regulations or lack thereof are likely to be in the news in coming weeks.