21 Aug 2014
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Officials: Recreational Boat Regs Don't Address Overcrowding

Despite recent tragedy, officials cannot penalize boaters who pack their vessels.

Officials: Recreational Boat Regs Don't Address Overcrowding

In the wake of recent tragedy, the waters of enforcement for boaters who overcrowd their vessels are still murky.

In recent days, a devastating when a boat carrying over 24 guests capsized, leading some to question whether the tragedy was caused by a wake from another vessel or possible overcrowding on the 34-foot Silverton cabin cruiser.

On Sunday in Wading River, f; a marine rescue brought all who were thrown into the Long Island Sound, screaming for help — including a 7-year-old boy — to safety.

But despite wide public attention to a burgeoning problem, officials say in New York State, laws don't address the issue of overcrowding recreational vessels.

Sally Drake, a spokeswoman for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, said all regulations concerning capacity on boats are federally determined. No federal regulations exist regarding capacity on recreational boats sized similarly to the vessels involved in the recent Long Island accidents, she said.

United States Coast Guard Long Island Sound sector Petty Officer West, who declined to give his first name, said there are no regulations regarding the number of individuals who can ride on a recreational vehicles.

He added recreational vehicles have capacity plates stating manufacturers' standards regarding weight limit and the number of individuals suggested for a vessel. "But we don't really enforce it," West said. "It's up to the owner's discretion."

The Coast Guard can enforce safety equipment standards and cite boat owners who do not adhere to regulations. "We can recommend not having that many people on board but we can't tell them what to do," he said. "We can't really tell people how to run their boats." 

If a vessel is overloaded, West added, a Coast Guard officer could "recommend termination" of the journey and bring individuals in to port but would not be able to write up any violations. "There is no law against overloading your boat," he said.

State regulations do exist addressing life jackets: Anyone under 12 years of age on a vessel less than 65 feet must wear a life jacket in New York State, unless situated in an enclosed cabin, according to the  National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). Those not adhering to the regulation can be fined between $25 and $100.

Rachel Johnson, communications director at the National Safe Boating Council, said while no regulations regarding capacity exist at the current time, owners should be aware of, and follow, the capacity recommendations on their vessels.

The mission of her organization, Johnson said, is to promote safer boating through public education and training, especially the "Wear It" program that advocates all individuals wearing life jackets at all times while boating.

The top five factors that contribute to boating accidents, Johnson said, are operator inattention, improper lookout, or not having a view of the entire circumference of the vessel, operator inexperience, excessive speed, and machinery failure.

"One of our main focuses is life jacket wear," Johnson said. She added that individuals involved in 70 percent of all fatal boating accidents drowned, and 84 percent of that number were not wearing life jackets. "A lot of those stories would not have ended in tragedy had they chosen to wear life jackets," she said.

While Johnson admits many adults resist the notion of life jackets, new models have been created that are much smaller and lightweight, and can be inflated by pulling a chord in the event of an emergency. Some are as small as a belt fanny pack, she said. "These are great alternatives for adults ages 16 and over," Johnson said.

Gary Joyce, an Aquebogue resident who is also a New York Sate-certified boating safety instructor, a United States Coast Guard licensed captain, and an instructor with the United States Power Squadron, said public compliance, when it comes to water safety, is key.

"The regulations that are in place are fine and won't require updating, just adherence, along with common sense -- and that's the hard part," Joyce said.

He added that it is the captain's or boat operator's responsibility to ensure that their vessel is operated in a safe manner at all times. "They are ultimately responsible for what goes on in their boat," Joyce said.

When teaching boating safety courses, Joyce said he gives a short lecture on where all safety equipment is located, how the radio operates, how to turn on and shut off engines, and the importance of personal flotation devices and life jackets, before ever leaving the dock.

"There's a move afoot with all the organizations that life jackets be worn by everyone, but, at worst, you'd better make sure any non- to poor swimmers have them, that you have enough for your passenger count, and that they're in proper shape. And every child 12 and under better have one on when on deck," Joyce said. "Lastly, if you haven't taken a boating safety class from some organization — do so." 

Joyce said while there is no law, such as legislation that exists for boating while intoxicated, "That's where the commons sense factor comes in. You shouldn't overload your boat, period."

Other factors such as sea conditions must be considered. "Most of the errors are due to lack of knowledge, plus the fact that I think most people think because they can see land, they're not in a hostile environment — again, another mistake," Joyce said. "Unless you have gills, you're a guest, not an occupant."

No new law is needed, Joyce believes.  "Education, education, education. And you still need common sense — and there's nada you can do about that."

What do you think? Should federal and state officials get serious about addressing boat capacity? Should legislation be introduced to prevent tragedy? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

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