Starting this year, residents 40 years old or younger must carry a Washington State Boater Education Card while operating a powerboat in state waters.
It’s safe to say the requirement will surprise a shipload of people despite six years of publicity.
The requirement has been phasing in since it was endorsed by the Washington Legislature in 2005 to help curb the rise of boating accidents in ever-more-crowded waters.
So far, 99,806 people have completed a Washington boater education course since 2008 when the requirement took effect.
That indicates most operators have yet to take the course, considering that Washington has more than 234,500 registered vessels.
Last year, 271 citations, at $87 a pop, and 365 warnings were issued to non-complying boat operators in the age groups required to have a boater education card.
Next year the requirement will apply to people age 50 and younger operating boats powered by motors of 15 horsepower or more.
Boaters aren’t being singled out. The requirement is patterned after hunter education programs enacted in the 1950s.
Boaters can satisfy the requirements by taking a course in a classroom, online or by purchasing the state’s home-study course. The options are spelled out on the Washington Parks and Recreation website.
Classroom courses vary in length and cost, depending on the course provider.
Some boaters say the more expensive classroom options are bargains, including the Spokane Sail & Power Squadrons version of America’s Boating Course (ABC).
The eight-hour course costs $48, or $73 for two people in the same household sharing the classroom materials.
Nine people – ages 12-50 – are finishing the ABC today in a special class conducted in four two-hour sessions during the Spokane Boat Show at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center.
Instead of going the Internet route, they chose to interact with human beings who know boating inside and out.
The classroom option is worth considering.
The ABC students will take home the 243-page book that isn’t offered with other courses.
“Most people tell me they got their money’s worth the first night,” said Jim Roeber, a boating instructor since 1969.
Roeber wears an inflatable life vest as he’s teaching the course, a subtle technique to demonstrate how convenient safety can be with modern equipment.
“It can save your life yet it’s so small and light you forget you have it on,” 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.
Drunk driving is another major cause of accidents and injuries, while operator inattention factors into two-thirds of boating accidents, Roeber said.
The course also touches specifically on boating safety for hunters and anglers.
Roeber communicates with Idaho and Washington boating officials to get details on other types of boating accidents.
The reports compel him to emphasize official findings on preventable tragedies, such as the Idaho couple and their two boys who died in 2005 from carbon monoxide poisoning on Dworshak Reservoir.
An overloaded boat that put the transom too deep in the water led to the death of all the occupants as they motored down the reservoir. “They thought they were ventilated but the station-wagon affect sucked the gases into the cabin,” he said.
“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.
“There are so many subtle things to know and it’s my passion to teach them to boaters.”
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 and dealing with hazardous conditions.
Washington’s course requirements emphasize boating rules and etiquette, but a classroom of boaters offers a chance to pick up local details.
“Along the way you pick up a lot more information, especially about this area, and you can compare notes with other boaters in the class,” Roeber said. “And we have fun with it.”
The next course taught by the Spokane Sail and Power Squadron, a group of about 50 volunteers, will start March 1 at the group’s clubhouse, 925 W. Jackson Ave. Info: 328-6165