The commercial vs. rec debate

By Capt. Frank Dudis

I recently read WorkBoat’s March story, “Close Calls, Rec boaters are putting commercial mariners on edge,” with mixed thoughts.

I am an observer on both sides of the recreational vs. commercial operator issue. Besides being a northern New Jersey Sea Tow towboat operator for 16 years, I have been a licensed New York and New Jersey safe boating instructor for the past seven years. Education can’t fix bad attitudes on both sides.

 Most states require passing an eight-hour long NASBLA (National Association of State Boating Law Administrators)-styled boater safety course to run anything with an electric or gas motor. But does that make them good boaters? Hardly, even if they memorized every single rule taught. And there are absolutely no physical qualifications needed, unlike a commercial vessel operator.

The recreational certification program is not perfect with its eight-hour class or its recently elevated 80% (New Jersey standard) or better final proctored exam grade requirement. I was shocked to learn that people who are clearly unable to safely run a boat, namely deaf or even legally blind people, have already passed closed book tests and have been granted boater safety certificates. Additionally NASBLA, the nationwide advisory entity, does not include or test commercial vessel lighting.

I tell my students who run in and around nearby New York Harbor to carry $10 plastic boating information cheat sheet cards from boating supply stores for when that information may be needed. People die and kill others when they don’t know what they were looking at.

Whether it’s the 85-foot party boat claiming draft constriction privileges in a 25-foot deep bay, or the rec boater cutting between a tug and tow in a channel, there’s enough blame to go around.

Interestingly the March WorkBoat article included a diagram of a barge tow’s obstructed view that can extend several hundred feet in front of the barges. A classic example of this concept is the real life example that occurred in broad daylight on the Delaware River in July 2010 — the Duck Boat incident. In this case both vessel operators were professional mariners and both failed. One professional mariner was on the phone in the lower tug bridge of the 75’6″ Caribbean Sea pushing the 250-foot empty sludge barge The Resource while the DUKW 34’s “professional” operator never had his passengers don PFDs while awaiting an obvious collision before he alone abandons ship. Two people died at the hands of these educated licensed “professionals.”

So, do boaters need education? Absolutely. In New Jersey, about 507,000 boater safety certificates have been issued in a state with 5.1 million adults and about 175,000 registered boats. Not bad in a lawsuit-happy state. Boat operators are responsible for the well being of their passengers. Ideally, these operators are sober, conscientious and non-arrogant, not smart propeller heads. This is true for both commercial and recreational.

Education is a start, but alone, it falls far short of curing the problem. Money or a gray beard, a prudent vessel operator does not make.

Capt. Frank Dudis is a boating instructor at the New Jersey Boating College in Midland Park, N.J. You can reach him at NJBoatingCollege@Yahoo.Com.

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