Inexperience an all too common problem on the water

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 16, 2004

One of my best partners in the quest towards educating the public on safe boating practices is CDR Kim Pickens, the head of Operation Boat Smart at Coast Guard Atlantic Area. From time to time we have a chance to compare notes and she recently sent me a media advisory from Coast Guard Headquarters that validated practices I witnessed as recently as two weeks ago.

Each year our family heads to my wife’s family cottage in the lakes region of Indiana near the towns of Howe and LaGrange. The cottage sits right on a canal which leads to a series of lake. Wonderful place to spend a week boating, water skiing or fishing. It is also a location where just about every homeowner has at least one Personal Watercraft or PWC.

During the week I was in Indiana I had a chance to sit and do something I rarely have an opportunity to do – .enjoy a sun rise with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. I did this just about each morning looking out on the lake. Not only did I enjoy the coffee and sunrise I also saw many PWCs operators, several of them very young. I watched several of these &uot;operators&uot; nearly thrown themselves off their vessels. In one case two nearly collided. The week validated an important area of boating safety – parents need to make sure that youthful operators of PWCs get some formal safe boating training before they ever take control of this type of vessel!


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In an Aug. 2 media release, the Coast Guard reinforced this point. &uot;The Coast Guard is urging parents to ensure their children get educated about boating safety before operating or riding a personal watercraft. Adults who rent, lend, or borrow personal watercraft must know and follow Federal and State boating laws, and heed the Coast Guard’s &uot;You’re in Command&uot; message to be responsible for the safety of all those who operate or ride. Recent personal watercraft fatalities on Lake Tahoe involving children under the age of sixteen have raised Coast Guard concern and led to this appeal to adults and parents.

&uot;Too often we’re seeing instances where an adult will rent a personal watercraft and then allow friends and family to operate it with little or no regard to age or boating education and training,&uot; said Capt. Scott Evans, the Coast Guard’s chief of the office of boating safety. &uot;Parents should also be aware of the dangers of having young children riding as passengers, especially those that are too small to have their feet fit firmly into the foot well of the personal watercraft.&uot;

Coast Guard statistics for 2003 show 40 percent of injuries reported on personal watercraft involved children ages 19 and under.

In 2003, 112 children ages 12 and under were reported injured in personal watercraft accidents.

Additionally, 380 children ages 13-19 were reported injured in personal watercraft accidents, compared to 280 children injured in open motorboats, the next greatest number involving the same age group.

The Coast Guard stresses safe personal watercraft operation is more than a matter of age, yet these statistics show that age is a very important part of the equation and are consistent with automobile accident statistics, which also show young drivers are involved in a greater number of automobile accidents.

&uot;When riding in the front of the craft, a small child can become a missile or be crushed into the handlebars in a collision or when encountering a large wave,&uot; said Evans.

&uot;When riding on the back of the craft, small children can easily lose their grip and fall off.

Parents must consciously decide whether their child should ride aboard a personal watercraft, and must warn them against riding with inexperienced and uneducated operators.&uot;

For teens, personal watercraft are the entry-level boat, they’re fun, stylish, and appeal to the excitement factor that typifies this age group.

Studies have indicated the possibility that children age 14 and under may not have the cognitive ability to make split-second decisions in an emergency, and nor may they have the coordination to use the controls precisely.

The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators has developed a model act for state legislatures proposing a minimum personal watercraft operator age of 16.

The Personal Watercraft Industry Association has also endorsed a minimum operator age of 16.

Most states have a personal watercraft minimum operator age but that age varies from state to state. Parents need to be aware of the state boating laws where the boating activity is taking place and ensure their children are aware of them.

&uot;Unfortunately, personal watercraft are frequently thought of, and often treated as, toys rather than high performance recreational boats that must comply with State and Federal laws, including age restrictions and navigation rules of the road.

Think of it this way – a parent must consider the safety of their child when riding on or operating a motorcycle – the same decision making process applies to allowing a child to ride or operate a PWC,&uot; said Evans.

Evans brings up a good comparison. No parent would allow a child to just hop on a motorcycle and take off. The same thought process needs to be adopted for PWC operation. The rules in the state of Virginia are very specific regarding PWC operation. Operators must be at least fourteen years old. As of 1999 PWC operators between the age of 14 and 16 must have proof of successful completion of an approved Boating Safety Course in order to operate a PWC.

Consider all these facts before you let a teenager operate a PWC.

Until next week….boat safe and boat smart!

Joe DiRenzo is a former Coast Guard Lt. Commander who lives in Suffolk.