From her homeport on Sanibel Island off Florida’s West Coast, Mary Paige Abbott has been seeing what all experienced boaters have observed this year: countless newcomers on the waterways looking for a socially distanced way to have fun, and many of them with no clue what they’re doing at the helm.

“For years, there have been people who should not be out on the water operating their own boats,” she says. “Now, we’re just getting hit with a huge quantity of those people. A lot of them, sadly, are people who have never boated before or who have been exposed to boating, but they’ve erroneously assumed that the sport is easy.”

As chief commander of the United States Power Squadrons—America’s Boating Club, Abbott is in a position to do something about that problem. The nonprofit organization is adding to its roster of online courses for new and experienced boaters, and is now offering its entry-level course—America’s Boating Course—in both English and Spanish. The organization also recently launched a course one level above basic beginner, called Boat Handling, to help improve on-water boating skills. It’s in addition to more advanced courses such as AIS Electronics for Boaters, Hurricane Preparation and more.

America’s Boating Club offers a blended experience, combining online and in-person learning about boat handling and more.

America’s Boating Club offers a blended experience, combining online and in-person learning about boat handling and more.

Abbot says America’s Boating Club was already expanding its online offerings prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that the need to offer courses in a socially distanced way simply sped up the effort to make more material available.

“What we’ve had over the years is a series of very, very good courses that were taught in a classroom setting by our local squadrons,” she says. “We have about 340 squadrons across the nation. They were our point of contact with the public and our members for the courses. As time has evolved, we’ve understood the fact that a Tuesday night class is not convenient for everybody. So, to better serve the marketplace, we adapted several of those classes to a virtual seminar, a blended learning experience with a squadron.”

A blended learning experience combines online and in-person learning. Even with the pandemic’s restrictions, Abbott says, boaters can still have a member of America’s Boating Club come to their boat—wearing a mask and gloves—to provide on-the-water skills training. Those offerings will continue, she says, although in keeping with changing local and state regulations.

And as those regulations continue to hamper everyday life ashore, one course that may become especially popular is Cruising and Cruise Planning. The course includes eight two-hour sessions for boaters who are thinking about living aboard for a week or longer, including anyone considering a move aboard for months at a time until the pandemic eases. The course is “for the types of people who want to set off and go,” she says. “The truth is, it’s not just the life of Riley out there on the water.”

Members of America’s Boating Club get a discount on course fees, and Abbott says she’s expecting demand for courses to increase even more than usual this winter. The organization plans to add more courses to meet that demand.

“Traditionally in the winters, our course sales increase. People are inside and preparing for the next boating season,” she says. “If somebody just wants to learn celestial navigation, we offer that. We are preparing for greater participation, but we’re also cognizant of the fact that we have a finite number of offerings. We’re still developing more so that people will understand that the boating world is in a constant state of change.”

There are a growing number of course offerings for boaters of every experience level to access online this winter, when the boat might be put away for the season, leaving time to learn a few new skills. Among them is Boaters University from Active Interest Media, the parent company of Soundings. An all-access pass lets boaters learn about boat handling, engine repair, seamanship, survival at sea, fishing, weather forecasting and more. All boaters need is an internet connection, and they can log on for the course materials—which are theirs to keep forever, in case a refresher is needed in the future.

This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue.

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