Waterway enforcement in a swarm of personal watercrafts

During the summer of 2012, PWCs gained increased public attention due mainly to a series of accidents involving high-profile victims


The Labor Day holiday is now upon is, and as it does every year, this three-day weekend signals the unofficial end to the summer boating season.  There will be a lot of boaters out this weekend, but as summer turns to autumn, those numbers will quickly dwindle — so now is a good time to reflect on what we learned in summer 2012.

Personal watercrafts, or PWCs, are a constant source of concern for anyone charged with enforcing recreational boating regulations. These small, nimble craft are able to be launched and operated with little or no experience (if you don’t mind getting wet a couple times while learning) and capable of speeds in excess of 70 mph.

This is a potentially-deadly combination makes these craft one of the most dangerous on the water, and statistics show that they are more accidents than almost any other class of watercraft year after year.

By The Numbers
The 2011 Boating Accident Report, prepared by the U.S Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety, shows that personal watercrafts (PWCs) were involved in 1,158 of the 5,939 reported accidents for the year, resulting in 764 injuries. We won’t know for certain until the 2012 statistics are released, but just observing anecdotal evidence in the news headlines, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if that ratio increased during the past summer. 

Further reviews of the statistics show that the major contributing factors include operator inattention, improper lookout, inexperience and excessive speed. Of course, if you are spending your days patrolling anywhere PWCs are allowed this can also be described as typical PWC operation.

While PWCs have been widely popular — and equally dangerous — since the 1990s, the summer of 2012 resulted in increased public attention due mainly to a series of accidents involving high-profile victims.

• In late May, singer Sean Kingston sustained a serious head injury after the PWC he was operating struck a Miami-area bridge
• During the July 4th Holiday, Duke wide receiver Blair Holiday also sustained serious injury after his PWC was struck by another PWC operated by a teammate
• Also during the July 4th Holiday, retired astronaut Alan Pointdexter was killed after his PWC was struck by another PWC, this time operated by his adult son
• Later the same week, singer Usher’s 11-year-old old stepson was seriously injured, and later declared brain dead, after being struck by a PWC operated by a family friend (while the boy and a friend were floating on an inner tube tied off to a rented pontoon boat)

As is often the case, these high profile incidents have caused the media and public to question how these accidents could happen. Reports pointed to the need for licensing of operators and increased safety requirements. Unfortunately, this points to the bigger problem.

According to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) only seven states/territories have no requirement for motorboat operators to produce proof of approved boating safety instruction.  None of the above accidents occurred in one of these seven jurisdictions.  Since, according to the same USCG report referenced above, 78 percent of operators involved in accidents lack any formal boating education the various state requirements are unknown to many of the boaters who ply our waters on a regular basis.

State By State
However, while the calls for reform may be off base, they are not totally out of line. One of the biggest problems with the current boating education requirements is that, unlike motor vehicle licensing, the requirements vary greatly by state.

For example:

• Only eight states require all motorboat operators to obtain mandatory training
• 20 states limit this requirement to specific age classes (usually only preteens, teens, or young adults)
• The remaining states either use a “born after date” to determine education requirements or limit the requirement to PWCs only

This means there are whole classes of operators who either do not need any education or only need it when operating specific types of watercraft. To further complicate matters the requirements change from state to state, meaning an operator who is legal in one state may or may not be legal in a neighboring state or while on vacation.

So, what can we do?

Unfortunately, as officers all we can do is spread the word, educate boaters when possible, and issue citations when necessary. We all know that this will not stop unlicensed, untrained operators from speeding around the waterways — one bad turn from being another statistic.

As professional boaters, we can lend our knowledge and experience to those fighting to improve and standardize the boating education requirements.

While I have no illusions that boat accidents, or even those involving PWCs, will someday be reported as ZERO I am hopeful that they will someday be a lot less.

About the author

Tom Burrell began his career in maritime enforcement in 1992 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, following his service in the USMC Reserves during Desert Storm. He would see service in Key West, (Fla.) Norfolk, Va., and New York City, both afloat and ashore with duties which ranged from drug and alien interdiction to recreational boating safety. During this time he would serve in a variety of positions including boarding team member, boarding officer, boat crew, coxswain, and master helmsman. Achievements include Coxswain “C” School Honor Graduate, numerous Humanitarian Service awards and involvement in several high profile joint operations — including the security for JFK International Airport during the United Nations 50th Anniversary.

In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a Waterways Conservation Officer, a position which would include posting in both the rural north central region, and later in suburban Philadelphia. In 2002 he was promoted to patrol supervisor for the South Central Region and received the PA DUI Association “Top Gun” Award for his efforts in apprehending boaters who were under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance. Tom is currently a Captain assigned to Headquarters. He is also an instructor in the areas of firearms, hand gun retention, handcuffing, OC spray, First Aid & CPR, and Boating Under the Influence Detection/Apprehension.

In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University. In 2007 and 2008 he was granted the opportunity to address the Northeast Association of Criminal Justice Sciences, during their annual conference at Roger William’s University in Bristol (R.I.), concerning the unique search and seizure authority of conservation officers. When not working or going to school Tom enjoys hunting and fishing near his home in south central Pennsylvania and spending time with his wife Amy, daughters Paige and Johanna, and son Ben.

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