Jet-propelled boats bring out the outlaw in riders Complaints rising sharply

August 05, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

A story in The Sun yesterday on personal watercraft incorrectly said that the public relations firm Burson-Marstellar manufactures Sea-Doo watercraft. In fact, Sea-Doo is made by Bombardier Corp.

Howard Park, who was correctly identified in the story as a Burson-Marstellar employee, should also have been identified as spokesman for Bombardier.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

The drivers of three small jet boats spun around a lagoon at the Sandy Point State Park yesterday and performed, with the blessing of natural resources police, the kind of perilous and illegal stunts that make other boaters mad: jumping wakes and speeding near docks, shorelines and each other.

Illegal looked fun.

Then, a bunch of reporters in bathing suits and life jackets took turns racing around in the agile craft, which can seat two or three and look like waterborne snowmobiles. Some enthusiastic journalists roared close to the docks, apparently breaking a speed limit of 6 knots (6.9 mph) within 100 feet of most obstructions. Some appeared to cross paths at high speed.

Illegal was fun.

In fact, it was hard to follow the rules. The craft's 45 mph top speed and agility in turns seemed to make fixed obstacles and other boaters pop up out of nowhere. Its quick acceleration, turning the choppy waters into a sea-green blur in a second or so, seemed to mesmerize riders.

"Almost every one of [the reporters] broke the law, basically," one state official commented later.

Another, Richard J. "Jerry" Bandelin, the state's chief of regulation for boating, said such behavior is typical aboard these machines, properly known as "personal watercraft."

"Somehow or another [a person] gets on one of these things and their brain gets detached from their body," he said.

At a lagoon-side news conference, Department of Natural Resources officials complained that there has been a steady increase in the number of violations of personal watercraft regulations in recent years.

"It's the device we have the most complaints about as far as boating safety is concerned," said Col. Franklin I. Wood, superintendent of the state's natural resources police, which patrols Maryland's waterways.

The number of personal watercraft registered in Maryland has quadrupled since 1991, rising from 1,295 to 5,179. The number of citations and warnings issued to operators rose from 1,027 in 1991 to 1,128 in 1992.

By Aug. 1 of this year, 912 citations and warnings had been written, with a month of summer vacation season left. (Most citations carry a fine of $50 to $100, although some carry a penalty of $500.)

Colonel Wood blamed "inexperienced and irresponsible" operators for the violations and for the 32 accidents since January 1991, including two where wake-jumpers wiped out and were injured by other boats' propellers.

None of the Maryland accidents was fatal. But 60 people died nationwide in personal watercraft mishaps during 1991 and 1992.

Complaints about personal watercraft violations come from along the Potomac River and around the Chesapeake Bay, police said, concentrated where most of the boats are: in the waters of Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Operating the craft near the shore can also damage the environment and create noise problems.

Bruce A. Gilmore, director of the state boating administration, said the surface-skimming craft are increasingly exploring estuaries and creeks that are too shallow for conventional boats. (They have no propellers. Instead, they are driven by an internal "impeller" that sucks in and shoots out a jet of water.)

Watercraft riders who speed through fragile areas on the bay's fringes are damaging submerged grasses, he said, disturbing nesting bald eagles and other wildlife and stirring up sediment, which can harm oyster beds. They are also usually in violation of the regulation requiring a 6-knot speed limit near a shoreline.

More rules aren't needed, the Department of Natural Resources said. Better compliance with existing rules is.

Howard Park, a Washington-based spokesman for the Burson-Marsteller Corp., makers of the Sea-Doo personal watercraft, agrees. He provided the craft and recruited the operators for yesterday's demonstration.

"We're very pleased with the Maryland law," he said, adding that about 30 other states have some restrictions.

He also defended the image of the devices. Lifeguards have used them to make rescues, he pointed out. Manufacturers have donated about 2,000 nationwide for use by law enforcement officials. (Department of Natural Resources police have a couple they use for enforcement of personal watercraft regulations.)

Still, the machines appear to appeal to the outlaw in everyone.

Cal Cromer, a Sea-Doo district sales manager and one of the three jet ski demonstrators here yesterday, said that illegal wake-jumping, where the rider uses the wake created by another boat as a kind of ski jump, "is one of the things everyone wants to do with these."

HOW TO USE PERSONAL WATERCRAFT SAFELY

The state tightly regulates the use of small jet-propelled boats, called personal watercraft. Here are some of the rules.

* A rider must be 14 or older and, if born after July 1, 1972, must carry a Boater Safety Education Certificate.

* A rider must wear an approved life jacket.

* The operator must wear a lanyard that cuts off the craft's engine if the operator goes overboard or use a craft that starts idling in a circle if the operator falls overboard.

* The craft may be used only between sunrise and sunset.

* Speed is limited to 6 knots (6.9 mph) when approaching within 100 feet of people, vessels, shore, wharves, pilings, bridges or abutments.

* In Atlantic Ocean waters, the craft are not permitted within 300 feet of people who are surf fishing.

* Water skiing is permitted using personal watercraft only if the boat is designed to tow a skier and if an operator and observer are aboard.

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