Neglect on the waterfront

June 06, 1994

The state of Maryland makes it easy -- too easy -- for people to operate a boat. You don't need a license. And if you were born before July 1, 1972, you aren't even required to take a boating safety course. You can buy a boat and be out in the middle of the bay the same afternoon, even if you can't tell starboard from port. Under current laws, the responsibility to know what you're doing is yours to assume or not.

Unfortunately, the events of the Memorial Day holiday just past show that too many boaters are shirking that responsibility. Water recreation of any type demands caution and common sense, yet people continue to ignore such fundamental safety measures as wearing life jackets.

Even experienced sailors such as Peter C. Gookin, who worked with the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis and drowned while cleaning the bottom of his boat 10 days ago, are not immune to carelessness. Natural Resources officials say he neglected to anchor the boat, which drifted from shallow to deep water. He was not wearing a life jacket.

Nor were the father and son who drowned when their boat sunk near Sandy Point State Park during the recent holiday weekend. The boat went down because it was carrying too much weight, but DNR officials say they may not have realized that; this was an older vessel and may not have been marked with weight limits. "The real thing to look for here is the [lack of] life jackets," said DNR spokesman John Verrico. Not even the younger victim, who had a tracheotomy, was protected with a life vest.

That same day Natural Resources Police had to rescue a boater, piloting a brand-new boat, who clearly wasn't qualified to be on the water. He was trying to navigate at night near Sandy Point when he hit a jetty, dropped anchor and got tangled in swimming lines. The police not only had to shepherd him out of the channel, they had to help him trailer his boat because he didn't know how.

Boating is serious, potentially dangerous business, more complicated than driving a car. The state may not require people to learn how to do it right, but it pays to do so anyway. Take a boating safety course. Wear life jackets. Learn about your particular vessel, its attributes and limitations. Avoid alcohol (half of all boating accidents are alcohol related). If you do drink, assign someone else to take the helm.

And if you aren't yet sure what you're doing, don't leave the dock.

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