Sharing the waterways

Summer will soon be in full swing, and for operators of commercial vessels on the waterways that means the return of recreational boaters en masse. In Cincinnati, it appears the seasonal migration of boaters to the Ohio River has grown.

In the past, summer usually meant dealing with recreational boats and the occasional canoe or kayak. Now, however, I see fleets of kayaks, paddle boarders and even rented electric vessels all vying for a place on our already busy river. In many cases, the operators of these vessels have very little experience with navigation rules of the road, they often fail to don lifejackets and sometimes they are intoxicated.  

As professional mariners we must meet strict regulatory safety standards for good reason — our crew and passengers depend on us to run a safe operation. Our licenses and livelihoods hinge on our professionalism and our ability to operate vessels safely and responsibly. Shouldn’t we hold the recreational boating public to the same high standards for safety? 

Last month here in Cincinnati there was a tragic accident involving two canoeists who were paddling on the Ohio River near the Meldahl Dam. The canoe overturned and both people drowned. Neither was wearing a lifejacket. When the canoe was ultimately located some 60 miles downriver it did not contain any lifejackets. Also last month, individuals were arrested for operating recreational boats on the Ohio River while intoxicated. 

Passenger vessel operators on the Chicago River have seen a huge increase in recreational boaters, kayakers and paddle boarders.  They are concerned that there will eventually be an accident involving a commercial vessel and a recreational boat as a result of the crowded waterway and the inexperience of the boating public.

We are all seeing increases in users on our waterways. If we are to ensure safety for all, then everyone who plies our waters must be educated in safe operations. Professional mariners are both trained and experienced. It is time to take steps to ensure that the public is held to a high standard of safety for the benefit of all who share our waterways. 

About the author

Capt. Alan Bernstein

Alan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats in Cincinnati, is a licensed master and a former president of the Passenger Vessel Association. He can be reached at 859-292-2449 or

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Gayle MacBride on

    Captain Bernstein,
    I’m a paddler, an ACA Certified Coastal Kayak Instructor and a member of Northwest Indiana Paddling Assn (NWIPA). We clearly see the need for educating paddlers not only about the usual commandments (life vest, weather, air and water temperatures, stokes, and rescues) but also rules of the road not only from the paddlers perspective, but also and especially from commercial crew. To that end, I have been getting related articles from Workboat and have been talking to paddling instructors and kayak symposium staff about the issues. This week I will be attending the Great Lakes Water Safety Symposium with the purpose of bring the issues of paddling in shared waterways. My goal is to create a space where commercial boat personnel and paddlers can discuss issues and resolutions. Many paddlers seem to be oblivious to the hazard of paddling on shared waterways and their role in safe boating practices. Seems to me a “safe paddling code of conduct” based on existing rules of the road while interpreted in language that includes paddlers specifically. I welcome discussion with commercial boat personnel.

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