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Who Needs Boater Education?

A new law in Maine requires boaters ages 12 to 25 to hit the books, even though older skippers cause more safety problems
Maine’s new boating-education law will only affect young people and only on inland lakes and waters. The new law does not require safety training for boat operation on tidal waters.

Maine’s new boating-education law will only affect young people and only on inland lakes and waters. The new law does not require safety training for boat operation on tidal waters.

What group would you guess causes the most crashes aboard recreational boats: ages 12 to 25, or ages 30 to 50? A new law in Maine suggests it’s the younger boaters—but not everything is as it seems.

This past spring, Maine became ground zero for a debate on the necessity of mandatory boating education classes, a conversation that has repeated itself for years in legislatures nationwide. The Pine Tree State joined this particular fray late, with its boater-education bill being put forward after at least 36 other states had already imposed some form of mandatory classes. Still, the arguments echoing within the Maine State House were just as loud as everywhere else. On one side were lawmakers, regulatory agencies and concerned boaters saying things have gotten out of hand on the waterways, and on the other side were old-school boaters and sportsmen saying they shouldn’t have to take a class about things they already know.

“The last time we talked about this 25 years ago, people were like, ‘Why do we need boater education? Gramps and I have been out in the boat for years. It’s not a problem,’” says Game Warden Colonel Dan Scott of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Maine has always allowed anyone, of any age, to piddle around on boats with low-horsepower engines. The majority of the state’s recreational boats are on lakes and rivers, with commercial lobstermen more commonly found plying the rocky coast. For generations, 8- and 9-year-olds on Maine’s inland waterways have been launching aluminum fishing boats with low-horsepower outboards, as parents or grandparents keep watch from ashore. This is how many of today’s adults learned how to drive a boat.

The new law impacts young boaters, even though adults over 30 tend to cause more problems.

The new law impacts young boaters, even though adults over 30 tend to cause more problems.

Also for years, Maine has had a caveat that kids need to be at least 12 years old to operate a boat with engines of 25 horsepower or more. Because, well, most people agree it’s a bad idea to have an 8-year-old standing solo behind the wheel of a 35-foot center console with triple 350s hanging off the transom.

What’s changing with the law that passed in April is that starting January 1, 2024, anyone born after January 1, 1999, and operating boats powered by 25 horsepower or more on Maine’s inland waterways will also have to take a boater-education course. Practically speaking, the new law will affect boaters ages 12 to 25 in its first year, ages 12 to 26 in its second year, ages 12 to 27 in its third year, and so forth. All of which suggests that the state is trying to solve problems that younger boaters are causing on lakes and rivers.

Except, it’s really the 30- to 50-year-olds who are causing the most problems on those waterways. “The data says we really should be giving this information to the 30- to 50-year-olds,” Scott says. “If you’re sharp and you do some math, you’ll see that it’s going to take us five to 25 years to get to the 30- to 50-year-olds. The 50-year-old today will never be required to take this.”

The new law is a compromise, plain and simple, to try and move Maine past the age-old debate about who needs boater education, and into a reality where there is boater education for everyone.

Rep. Jessica Fay, a Democrat from Maine’s 66th District who sponsored the bill, understands the battling constituencies all too well. She’s from the southwest part of the state where most of the bigger-engine recreational boating happens in places like Sebago Lake. The scene there today is far different from how she grew up in the 1970s, steering her grandfather’s aluminum fishing boat with a 6-hp Evinrude. “That’s how I learned the lay of the land and figured out that it wasn’t a good idea to go sideways into a heavy chop because you weren’t going to get very far,” she told Soundings.

Many older boaters in Maine cannot be convinced that boating safety education makes sense for people of all ages.

Many older boaters in Maine cannot be convinced that boating safety education makes sense for people of all ages.

By the time Fay started running for office in 2016, boats had gotten a lot bigger with more powerful engines. When she knocked on doors asking for votes, she realized the problem was on people’s minds. “It was surprising to me how many folks brought up the issue of bad behavior on the water,” Fay says. “I kept hearing about it in dribs and drabs.”

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and the crush of people buying boats to get out on the water for some socially distanced fun. The pandemic created the biggest surge of new boat owners in years. Many of them had no boating experience whatsoever. Suddenly, those dribs and drabs of complaints became a torrent—not only in the offices of lawmakers like Fay, but also in the offices of law enforcement officials like Scott.

“The amount of traffic on our waterways went through the roof,” Scott says. “People were operating too fast, too close to shore, in and around swim areas, cutting other people off, creating huge wakes—we were starting to see this new bunch show up, and the local people were getting upset. It started to affect erosion on the shoreline and the loons that nest along the shore. In the springtime, the wakes were killing the loon eggs. People were calling their representatives and saying, ‘This is crazy.’”

According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s most recent nationwide data, 77 percent of annual deaths on boats occur with operators who did not receive boating-safety instruction. That data also shows a spike in deaths among boaters who are middle-aged. Maine’s experience lines up with that data, Scott says: “Everybody thinks of kids as crazy boaters, but if you look at the data and talk to our wardens, the people causing the anxiety are 30- to 50-year-olds. The reason why is that 19-year-olds can’t afford a $60,000 boat. Most of the people in the crash data are 30 to 50 years old.”

Lt. Jason Luce, Maine’s boating law administrator, agrees. The majority of problems are coming from the moms and dads out on the waterways, not their kids. “We’re all worried about this younger age, but statistically, it’s people more my age that are the problem,” Luce says. “It’s middle-aged men who cause the problems. At that point in their life, they have the extra money where they can afford to buy a big, fancy boat instead of a little aluminum boat with a trolling motor, and they don’t know how to operate them.”

But at the State House, in the meetings where the boater-education law was being debated, no amount of data could convince Maine’s older boaters and sportsmen that they should be required to take a course. They weren’t new boaters who lacked experience. They’d been out on the lakes and rivers for decades without any issues. And so, as has happened in quite a few other states, Maine’s lawmakers decided to start with the younger generation first. Hence the new law that will affect 12- to 25-year-old boaters in its first year of being enforced. That compromise was the only way that lawmakers like Fay could get a boater-education bill into law at all.

“I think the best-case scenario would require everyone to know the rules, but I also understand the challenges that it presents,” Fay says. “I thought, you have to start somewhere. Let’s dip a toe in the water—forgive the pun—and see if we can at least educate younger people, and maybe, just maybe, if they’re out on the water with their family, they’ll even be able to help educate their parents about the right way to operate.”

The big-picture debate isn’t over yet. The new law, in addition to requiring boater education for younger operators, directs Scott’s department to convene another group of stakeholders. “We’ve been mandated, starting this summer, to look further into this,” says Scott, who plans to attend those meetings with all the data about 30- to 50-year-olds ready to present anew. “We may bring forward changes to the 2023 legislature.”

For now, Luce calls the new law a stepping-stone on a path toward safer boating that probably won’t be fully built in his lifetime. “I’m happy that we have something,” he says. “I will be long gone and buried, but there will come a point where everybody will have taken a boating safety course.”   

This article was originally published in the July 2022 issue.

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