The Coast Guard should ask Congress to mandate safety education for all recreational boaters in U.S. waters, and use harbor safety committees to reduce dangerous encounters between boaters and commercial vessels, the National Transportation Safety Board says in a new report.

The report “Shared Waterways: Safety of Recreational and Commercial Vessels in the Marine Transportation System,” was inspired by the Aug. 30, 2016 collision between a New York Waterway ferry and kayakers on the Hudson River side of New York City that left three paddlers injured.

“The consensus from the industry was that we take a look at this,” said Capt. Morgan J. Turrell, chief marine accident investigations with the NTSB, who spoke on the subject at the recent Passenger Vessel Association convention in Seattle.

The NTSB report notes the incident off Manhattan’s West Side piers at 39th Street — when the departing ferry collided with kayakers obscured by sun glare — highlighted the growing risks of traffic conflict, especially with the burgeoning popularity of non-motorized paddle craft.

“The New York City accident illustrates the dangers of recreational and commercial vessels operating on shared waterways, and several stakeholders had previously discussed with the National Transportation Safety Board their concerns rising from an increase in encounters between these types of vessels,” NTSB officials wrote.

“Given the number of encounters currently observed between commercial and recreational vessels, the predicted increase in the number of such encounters, and feedback from marine industry representatives, the NTSB sought to better understand the scope of the issue and determine the extent to which the safety of our nation’s waterways is impacted.”

Reviewing Coast Guard accident statistics, NTSB investigators found accidents between recreational and commercial vessels have fluctuated in recent years. In 2012 there were 56 accidents and 4 deaths; in 2013, a total of 76 accidents and 7 deaths; in 2014, 51 accidents and 8 deaths, and in 2015, there were 76 accidents resulting in 6 deaths.

But a major trend is apparent in overall boating participation numbers. While nationally the number of registered recreational vessels decreased over the last decade, the numbers of mostly unregistered canoers, kayakers, and standup paddle boarders jumped by 21.9% between 2008 and 2014, according to estimates from the industry-affiliated Outdoor Foundation.

“Consequently, the number of interactions between these diverse vessels has risen, thereby increasing the safety risk, especially where confined waterways limit the ability of vessels to maneuver safely,” the NTSB report states. Those recreational users vary widely in marine knowledge and boat-handling skills, and in some states recreational operators are not required to obtain any basic safety education or knowledge of navigational rules of the road. By one Coast Guard estimate, only 28% of motorized recreational vessel operators in 2015 were required by state laws to complete a boating safety course or pass an examination.

Those findings mirror what state authorities are seeing, said Pamela Dillon, education and standards director at the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, headquartered in Louisville, Ky.

“There’s been a tremendous boost across the country in non-motorized craft,” Dillon said. Only a few jurisdictions require any safety certification for non-motorized small boat operation, although more like Oregon are considering it, she said.

NASBLA is the Coast Guard’s main partner in recreational safety education, and the NTSB report calls for the Coast Guard to seek statutory authority to impose NASBLA-approved safety education for all boaters on U.S. waters.

“It has been on the Coast Guard’s radar for five or six years,” and the service’s boating safety experts have drafted language for such a push, Dillon said. But the idea has failed to get Congressional support or hearings.

There might be better luck with another NTSB recommendation, to revive joint waterways management efforts between the Coast Guard and NASBLA, including updating “A Guide to Multiple Use Waterway Management,” so the document reflects current needs. Coast Guard grants used to fund those efforts up until a decade ago.

“We’ve always recognized that waterway management directly impacts safety,” Dillon said. “This report elevates it to where they will perhaps reconsider this.”  The report will be a big topic of discussion when state boating administrators hold their annual meeting in Lexington in March, she said.

In compiling the report, NTSB investigators met with commercial operators and waterway users in Chicago, Portland, and a number of coastal California cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles. On the inland waterways, they talked to waterway users in Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., and met with Coast Guard representatives who work on waterways management and accident prevention, along headquarters personnel.

Investigators rode along in commercial vessel wheelhouses during peak traffic times, including Chicago on Labor Day weekend.

“Both commercial and recreational vessel operators in each port stressed the need for recreational vessel operators to be familiar with basic navigation rules. They also expressed concern for the safety implications of the continued proliferation of kayaks, canoes, and SUPs (standup paddleboards),” the report states. In most ports, commercial and recreational users “generally believed that waterways were sufficiently large or that their layouts were such that the interaction of recreational vessels with commercial vessels could be safely managed,” the investigators found.

Chicago was different, with its tight maneuvering quarters on the Chicago River, no more than 300’ across at its widest point, as investigators saw on a busy summer weekend.

“Commercial vessels had little room to maneuver around recreational vessels, and the number of vessels —including rental and operator-owned motorized boats, kayaks, commercial vessels, water taxis, and tour boats —was particularly high near the river junction with Lake Michigan,” the report states. Waterway tour and taxi company operators told the NTSB that while commercial traffic growth had been moderate, they saw recreational traffic increases as “exponential.”

The NTSB found that harbor safety committees involving local Coast Guard and waterways users help improve communication and safety. After a kayaker maneuvering behind a San Francisco passenger vessel was pulled down by the vessel’s wash and fatally injured, the local harbor safety committee worked with marinas and rental facilities to come up with a program that educates recreational operators with information packets outlining basic navigation rules. Kayak rental companies got informational stickers about basic marine safety to put on their boats, and the committee and Coast Guard produced a safety video.

In Chicago, kayak rental companies outfitted their tour guides with radios so they could talk directly to commercial captains, and marked their rental craft so other operators can identify the tour groups and rental company names.

The Portland harbor safety committee developed “Operation Make Way” to inform local fishermen why they need to avoid the shipping channel and other areas where commercial vessels operate. A local pilots’ association voluntarily paid for commercial air time on radio stations to publicize the hazards of encroaching on shipping lanes.

Along the Cumberland River in Tennessee, Nashville officials posted signs access points where kayak rental companies launch to warn their customers of risks around commercial vessels on the river. Commercial captains sound their vessels’ horns before navigating blind bends in the downtown Nashville area to warn paddlers of their approach.

Nationally, the NTSB makes three main recommendations for the Coast Guard:

  • Establish a process for all harbor safety committees the regularly meet and identify safety risks posed by the interaction of commercial and recreational vessels in their respective geographic areas; develop and implement practices to mitigate those risks; and share successful practices among all harbor safety committees.
  • Renew its effort to get Congressional authority for requiring all recreational boat operators on waters subject to “to demonstrate completion of an instructional course or an equivalent that meets the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators standards.”
  • Work with NASBLA and the National Water Safety Congress to review and update “A Guide to Multiple Use Waterway Management” at regular intervals.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.