A flotilla of Washington boaters is coming of age this year – the age at which they must be certified to operate a power boat.
Patterned after hunter safety requirements in effect for decades, Washington’s boating safety law has been phasing in since 2005, when the Washington Legislature obliged most powerboat operators to pass a boater safety education course and carry a Washington State Boater Education Card.
The law seeks to reduce boating-related accidents and emphasizes rules and etiquette on waterways that are increasingly crowded.
This year, state residents under 36 years old must have a card while operating a motorboat of 15 horsepower or greater on Washington’s waterways. Next year the requirement expands to operators under 41.
“We’re beyond young people and getting into the core of people who own boats,” said Jim Roeber, a boating instructor since 1969.
Boaters can satisfy the requirements by taking a course in a classroom, online or by purchasing the state’s home-study course.
Classroom courses vary in length and cost, depending on the course provider.
But Roeber says the more expensive option – the Spokane Sail & Power Squadrons classroom version of America’s Boating Course (ABC) – is a bargain. The eight-hour course costs $48 or $40 for youths under 18.
“Most people tell me they got their money’s worth the first night,” he said.
While online courses are cheaper and more convenient, classroom courses offer students the chance to interact with an experienced boater.
“You pick up more information, especially about this area, and you can compare notes with other boaters in the class,” he said. “And we have fun with it.”
The next of the Power Squadrons’ courses will start Monday, 5:30 p.m., during the Boat Show at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center. The two-hour sessions will run four consecutive days.
Participants who register with Roeber today or Friday will get free admission to the Boat Show. Call 328-6165.
The course covers the spectrum, from boat designs to trailering and reading navigation signals.
Buoy systems and informational markers are addressed, as well as the Global Positioning System.
“I’m a believer in GPS, but it has its limitations,” Roeber said. “It might tell you how to get from A to B, but it doesn’t tell you about the rocks or shoals in between. Sometimes you have to consult a chart and punch in waypoints on your GPS to navigate around the hazards.”
Roeber says the classroom setting for ABC offers elaboration on issues such as carbon monoxide poisoning.
A 2005 tragedy involving a family on Dworshak Reservoir serves as one of many learning examples, he said, noting that an overloaded boat that put the transom too deep in the water led to the death of all the occupants.
“Depending on the wind, you could suffer carbon monoxide poisoning sitting in the cabin of your boat two slips away from another boat running its engine,” he said.
About 700 boating-related deaths occur in the United States each year, with 450-500 of those deaths attributable to drowning, according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics. Of those drownings, 90 percent could have been prevented if the victims had been wearing life jackets.
“I wear a vest-type inflatable PFD (personal flotation device) through the entire course to demonstrate how comfortable and convenient they are,” he said.
Drunk driving is another major cause of accidents and injuries and operator inattention factors into two-thirds of boating accidents, Roeber said
The course also touches specifically on boating safety for hunters and anglers.
“Overloading is a major cause of boating problems for sportsmen,” he said. “They don’t seem to appreciate the significance of freeboard when they lean over to net a fish. Once the boat starts filling with water, they’re sunk.”
Taking a whiz off the side of a boat accounts for startling percentage of sportsmen drowning deaths. “The fly is open on more than 50 percent of the bodies recovered from hunting-and-fishing boating accidents,” Roeber said. “They hit the cold water with all their gear and that’s it.”
Many experienced boaters have never learned to rig a “spring line,” which creates a giant “W” of rope between the vessel and the dock to keep the boat from surging back and forth.
“And a lot of people don’t know it’s a federal requirement to cross the towing safety chain under the tongue of the boat trailer,” Roeber said. “If you don’t do it that way and the tongue comes unhitched, it will fall to the ground and maybe cause a big wreck.
“Some people who are 40 are looking at the law and saying, ‘Heck I don’t need to take a course for another year.’ To that I say, ‘Hey, education is good for life – in every sense of the word. Why wait?’”