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Industry mourns BoatUS founder

BoatUS chairman and founder Richard Schwartz died Wednesday after a short illness. He was 85.

Schwartz created and grew the organization to become the predominant advocacy and boater services organization for the nation’s recreational boat owners.

“It’s a sad day here at BoatUS,” spokesman Scott Croft told Trade Only Today. “He was a mentor to a lot of people. It’s the end of an era.”

Two years ago, Schwartz announced his retirement after a 47-year run as the leader of the more than half-million-member boating association, and until his death, remained chairman of the BoatUS board of directors and chairman of the BoatUS National Advisory Council.

“We’ve become the largest boat owners organization in the U.S. and fought major boating battles along the way, making life better and safer for boaters, and all the while creating the services that make the boating experience better,” Schwartz said when he retired in 2013, according to a statement. “Boating should be a pleasure, not a hassle. I am proud to have led this organization.”

“Richard had the foresight that recreational boaters needed an advocate. They needed services to enjoy the water, so he created an organization dedicated to helping America’s boat owners enjoy their cherished time on the water,” BoatUS president Margaret Podlich said. “He was an inquisitive, innovative and an energetic leader who could get the very best out of every one of his staff and always insisted that boaters’ interests be protected. No one did more for America’s recreational boaters than Richard Schwartz.”

The organization began with a day on the water in the early 1960s. Schwartz was invited aboard a friend’s boat. Soon after it left the dock, the vessel’s owner was given a ticket for improper engine compartment ventilation, which Schwartz saw as unfair because the owner had no responsibility for the construction of the boat.

A Princeton and Yale Law School graduate and young antitrust lawyer, Schwartz asked his boating friends whether anyone was fighting for their interests, and the answer was no.

Just a few years later, Schwartz’s Capitol Hill testimony resulted in the watershed Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, which gave the Coast Guard the power to hold manufacturers accountable for certain safety standards, including engine compartment ventilation, and created the Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety, saving countless lives.

“With grace, grit and determination, Schwartz went head-first after the problems affecting recreational boaters, often persuasively leading the opposition to draw its own like-minded conclusion and sometimes taking a more direct approach with testimony laced with his characteristic, ‘That’s outrageous!’ ” the statement read.

Schwartz was one of the first to fight for legislation on behalf of boaters, and his efforts to shape national boating policy helped to secure passage of the Recreational Boating Safety and Facilities Improvement Act of 1979, also known as the Biaggi bill, which affirmed that the taxes and fees boaters pay should support boating programs.

He later was a vocal opponent of user fees and the highly unpopular luxury tax (1992) and the diesel fuel tax (1997), both of which were repealed.

In 1984, Schwartz was widely credited with leading the passage of the federal Wallop/Breaux Trust Fund Amendment, today part of the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, which returns more than $600 million annually to federal and state boating and fishing programs.

Taking advantage of America’s postwar boom in recreational boating, Schwartz led an organization that was an early pioneer in discount marine retailing, starting with a single product — a floating flashlight — and eventually opening a nationwide chain of 62 BoatUS retail stores.

He also made BoatUS a major influence on the national boating safety stage with the development of the 501(c)3 nonprofit BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water, which runs innovative programs ranging from a free online boating safety course to the only nationwide life jacket loaner program for kids and EPIRB rental programs.

When Congress directed the Coast Guard to stop providing routine on-the-water assistance in the 1980s, Schwartz created one of the largest on-the-water towing services in the nation, the red boats of BoatUS Towing Services, which include the TowBoatUS and Vessel Assist towing fleets.

Schwartz created the only consumer protection bureau for boaters to seek redress with manufacturers, suppliers or businesses, as well as a dispute mediation program. BoatUS Reports, the association’s early member newsletter, eventually grew to become BoatUS magazine, the largest boating magazine in the country, with a circulation of more than 500,000.

The BoatUS Marine Insurance program, started in 1967, offered the first recreational boat policy in clear, understandable language rather than the unintelligible, centuries-old, commercial ship language from Lloyd’s of London. Schwartz wrote a primer on what a boat policy should have in plain English, which today has been adopted industrywide.

Long before there were publicly available data on the causes of insurance claims, BoatUS developed the only recreational boat damage avoidance program and publication to help BoatUS members avoid claims and injuries — Seaworthy. BoatUS insurance programs now total more than $8 billion in hull value.

Ironically, in the early years Schwartz didn’t own a boat. However, he grew his fleet of watercraft to include a favored 22-foot Chris-Craft rumble seat runabout and a 42-foot catamaran deckboat for family runs to the local crab shack. He is survived by his wife, Beth Newburger Schwartz, seven children and 16 grandchildren.

Schwartz helped found and then later served on the National Safe Boating Council and has received awards that include the Councils Hall of Fame Award (1995); the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators Annual Award (1983) and Lifetime Achievement Award (1999); the. Coast Guard’s Distinguished Public Service Commendation (2000); the US Power Squadrons’ Raymond A. Finlay Sea Scout Service Award (2005); and the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s Charles S. Chapman Award (2006).

In 2007 he was the national spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Auxiliary Vessel Safety Check program and was awarded honorary commodore status.