Mariners from coast to coast and on the inland rivers and Great Lakes have similar tales to tell when it comes to recreational boaters: Anchor lights instead of running lights, no VHF radios, no clue who has the right-of-way, no concept that the wheelhouse crew may not be able to see them, no idea what channel markers mean and much more.

Close calls are common. Kayaks have bounced off commercial vessels and mariners have had to go into reverse to avoid hitting people. And if there’s an accident, mariners fear the bigger boat will be blamed no matter who’s at fault.

They also wonder about standards. Professional mariners must be licensed and trained, so what about recreational boaters? It depends. Mandatory education primarily for motorized craft varies widely by state. Only two require licenses. Yet waters, especially around big cities, are becoming increasingly clogged not only with runabouts and cruisers but also with canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and the like.

Sharing the waterways is a given, professional mariners say, but they would prefer sharing with a more informed crowd.

“It’s putting so much stress and strain on the professional mariner. You’re always on edge. It’s difficult to deal with, but it’s also a testament to the professional mariner that nobody’s been killed,” said Mike Borgström, president, Wendella Sightseeing Co., a tour boat operator in Chicago, a city that has some of the biggest traffic challenges.

“The growing concern around the country is users of the waterways who have never used the waterways before,” he said. Among them are people who rent boats for a few hours of fun.

“Safety courses are fine, but if I’m just some guy off the street, I’m not taking a safety course,” Borgström said. “The difficulty is trying to address those users. Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt. Nobody’s trying to get hurt.”

“You need to change the law,” he said.

Borgström was part of a Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) delegation that last fall raised the traffic issue with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). “The message was clear,” he said. “I think they were very surprised at my presentation.” The NTSB’s marine safety office said it was an issue they were interested in and might take a closer look at in the future.

The future is now, operators say.

Recreational boaters are “out for fun and sport,” said Del Wilkins, president of Illinois Marine Towing Inc., Lemont, Ill., a Canal Barge Co. subsidiary. “Anybody who has a wallet can walk in to a marina or boat store, buy a boat and be on the water the next day. That becomes a potential hazardous situation.”

Illinois Marine operates in a very restricted navigation channel — only 160' wide — so two barges take up 70', leaving just 90' of navigable channel to move around.

“Why wouldn’t there be rules that apply equally?” Wilkins asked. Mariners have to be licensed by the Coast Guard. “If they’re in an incident, there is a consequence. At a minimum there should be some type of mandatory requirement for training to have situational awareness.”

A person falling from a personal watercraft about 1,000' in front of a tow has less than one minute to get out of the way.


Some state laws apply to personal watercraft only, others to all powerboaters or to operators born after a certain date, according to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and South Dakota have no education requirements while Alabama and Indiana require licenses for powerboat operators.

In 1999, NASBLA started developing national course standards particularly aimed at powerboats, said Pamela Dillon, education director. Most standards focused on navigation rules, how to operate safely and interacting with others on the water. The organization supports mandatory education. Licensing and other restrictions are up to the states.

Now 49 of 56 U.S. states and territories have some kind of required education for motorized boats. A few are considering rules for non-motorized boats, Dillon said. She declined to identify them, saying she didn’t want to pre-empt their announcements.

As to how strict enforcement is, she said, “Ultimately, it’s a state-by-state decision.” It’s up to the boater to take the course. If he’s stopped, the officer can ask to see proof of a completed course.

They’ve been discussing how to reach the non-motorized boaters. “We don’t want to discourage people from boating,” she said.

And a lot of people are out boating. Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), the leading trade association for boat, engine and accessory manufacturers, says 89 million U.S. adults participated in recreational boating at least once during 2013. New boat sales topped half a million.

Asked about NMMA’s position on requiring recreational boating operators to be licensed and complete courses, a spokesman said the organization supports mandatory boater education. “NMMA believes education is the best way to prevent boating accidents and improve boating safety.”

On the commercial side, the American Waterways Operators (AWO) estimates there are more than 4,000 towboats and tugboats and more than 27,000 barges in the U.S. PVA says there are more than 5,000 Coast Guard-certified passenger vessels, and the Offshore Marine Service Association’s (OMSA) numbers show 1,200 offshore service vessels.

The solution to the traffic issues would be better-educated people, said Vann Burgess, the Coast Guard’s senior recreational boating safety specialist. “The Coast Guard does not have the authority to mandate education for recreational boaters,” though it has tried unsuccessfully to get it. “It’s about people taking responsibility for what they’re doing. We can’t say we favor one thing over another.”

One positive note: “We’re on a downward trend in fatalities,” he said.

Recreational boats “have a tendency to like the channels,” Burgess said. And mariners running tugs and barges can’t see them. “What they don’t understand is the gross tonnage rule. A lot of it is they just don’t know.”

Commercial and recreational co-existence “is part of the fabric of the operating environment across all the Great Lakes,” said Joe Starck, president of The Great Lakes Towing Co., Cleveland. “Generally speaking, the Coast Guard is around. They are patrolling and will have safety zones when a ship is moving.”

However, while the ships and tugs might know about the safety zone, that doesn’t mean others do.

Great Lakes ports have mixed recreational and industrial use. The water is cleaner, so more people are using it. The solution is “messy vitality. You have to be able to share the waterfront,” Starck said. Communication is key, “as long as everybody knows what everybody else is doing.”

Rob Casey, owner of Salmon Bay Paddle, Seattle, offers classes in freighter and tug wave surfing for sea kayakers and tries to make sure his students know what they and everybody else is doing.

“I’m one of the few who actually teaches people that a boating channel is not some place you take a nap in,” Casey said. He also explains that kayakers don’t have the right-of-way, and asks students to consider the environment and what they see in the channel.

Tugs produce seven- to eight-foot waves that spread away from the vessel. “We’re 100 yards on either side of the boat,” he said, “and the side we surf on is not in the traffic channel.”

They only go on calm water days and only with intermediate to advanced paddlers. They get three waves off each boat that can be surfed for a few hundred feet to half a mile for a 10-15 minute ride.

It compares to surfing elsewhere and is much closer than the ocean, which is about three hours away. “This is something we can do in our backyards,” he said. “I’m super safe, because that’s just the personality I am.”

Casey may be the exception. A lot of people come down to row in the calm canal. “It’s not an ideal situation,” said Bob Shrewsbury, co-owner of Western Towboat Co., Seattle. “Some of them are good and some aren’t. It’s pretty scary.

“We watch for them because you have to,” he said. “Just like bike riders, you have to assume they’re not looking out for you. They think they’re the only ones out there at 5:30 a.m.”

Sentiment toward boaters is the same on the East Coast.

“They have no clue about the rules of the road. You go out there in the summertime, and you’re virtually taking your life in your hands,” said Capt. Bob Silva, Toms River, N.J., who used to work for a recreational towing service.

While towing he’s had boaters whiz by creating such a big wake he had to slow down to avoid snapping a line or pulling out a cleat. He once searched for a guy for four hours who couldn’t give him the right coordinates. Then there’s one of his favorite stories about a guy he pulled off a mudbar. He asked if the boater had a chart, and the man took out one of those ubiquitous placemats with chart replicas.

Silva recommends a more rigid boating safety test that everyone has to pass, and a test on the actual operation of the boat — similar to what’s required for a driver’s license.

“Nobody’s enforcing intelligent boat behavior,” said Bos Smith, vice president of operations, Stevens Towing, Yonges Island, S.C., who describes the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW) as an obstacle course.

Small boat operators “don’t understand our momentum — how water flows with a tug and barge,” he said. “There are certain times we don’t even like to be operating,” such as Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day.

“We have jet skiers that will follow tugs and jump wakes,” he said. “We have a lot of skiers who ski in front of us and fall. I don’t know how you educate the boating public.”

Sailboaters say they have the right of way, Smith said. “They tack right in front of you and expect you to deviate. They don’t know what a danger signal is. They don’t understand the hydraulics of a big tug.

“There’s no easy solution, except education connected to a license. People do crazy, stupid stuff all the time. It’s a hard problem to fix.”



Total new boat sales in 2013, the most recent year available, were 532,170. Of that total, 225,800, or about 42%, were kayaks; 74,100 were canoes; 39,400 personal watercraft; and 3,000 jet boats.

The average cost of a new kayak was $540 in 2013; a canoe, $495; personal watercraft, $12,217; and jet boats, $37,618.

Of the 242 million U.S. adults, 89 million participated in recreational boating at least once during the year – a 1% increase from 2012 and the highest level of participation since the National Marine Manufacturers Association began collecting that data in 1990.

Source: NMMA 2013 Recreational Boating Statistical Abstract



Recreational boaters must exercise extreme caution when operating near commercial traffic on the inland waterways.

Barge tows have the right-of-way in the main channels of rivers, and tows need lots of room since they cannot move out of the channel to steer around boaters. Also, tows may need up to 1.5 miles to stop. A person falling from a personal watercraft about 1,000 feet in front of a tow has less than a minute to get out of the way.

Boaters should:

• Be aware of the blind spot that can extend for several hundred feet in front of and to the sides of barges.

• Stay away from the turbulent waters behind a towboat created by the propellers.

• Take extra precautions when boating at night. Navigation lights on the front and rear of a tow can be as much as a quarter mile apart.

• Be aware of the danger signal. Five or more short whistle blasts indicate immediate danger. Boaters should make sure they are not directed at them.

• Always wear a life jacket or personal flotation device to reduce the chance of drowning.

•  Sailboaters and windsurfers should keep in mind that large barge tows can “steal” their wind.

Source: “Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers: A boater’s guide to safe travel,” produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.


operator inattention tops REC BOATING ACCIDENT list

Of the 4,062 recreational boating accidents in 2013, the top five contributing factors involving operation of the vessel were: operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and machinery failure. Alcohol use and navigation rules violations were the next two top contributing factors.

Of the 560 deaths, most (272) were in open motorboats; the next highest amounts were 55 in canoes and 54 in kayaks.

Only 19 of the accidents were collisions with commercial vessels and nine were collisions with governmental vessels. The most, 947, were collisions with other recreational vessels.

Source: U.S. Coast Guard 2013 Recreational Boating Statistics



2015 March CloseCalls MAR Cover crowded river

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.