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Rival towers trade jabs over safety

BoatU.S. says boating has never been safer; Sea Tow accuses the group of being complacent on safety

BoatU.S. says boating has never been safer; Sea Tow accuses the group of being complacent on safety

The nation’s two largest towing providers have been squabbling over who is more safety-conscious after an anti-terrorism summit that brought to the fore a proposal for licensing boaters.

The Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard’s parent agency, had floated the idea as a way of ferreting out terrorists mixed in among pleasure boaters while also improving boating safety. Richard Schwartz, chairman of the 670,000-member BoatU.S., panned boater licensing at the National Small Vessel Security Summit in June as ineffective in doing either of those things. A licensing system would be “costly to develop, take years to implement, and would not result in any appreciable improvement in security,” he said.

Then in a subsequent press release about the summit, BoatU.S. focused on safety. “Contrary to what you may be hearing from U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials lately, recreational boating has never been safer,” the release says. “Recent calls by Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Coast Guard officials that recreational boating would be safer if boaters were ‘certified’ and required to show proof of identification is just not backed up by the facts,” says BoatU.S. president Nancy Michelman in the release.

Then rival tow company Sea Tow — representing some 160,000 members — jumped into the fray, taking BoatU.S. to task for being complacent about boating safety. “While we can debate the best approach to improving security and the pros and cons of boater licensing, we should not allow such debates to derail, or be confused with, efforts to improve boater education,” says Sea Tow president Keith Cummings, also in a release. “It is egregious to make a statement that implies recreational boater safety is good enough.”

BoatU.S. responded with another release scolding Sea Tow for “distorting” BoatU.S.’s record on advocacy for boating safety. While standing by its statement that boating is much safer than it used to be — fatalities per 100,000 boats have fallen 75 percent since 1971 — “to infer from this … that BoatU.S. does not support ongoing efforts to promote boating safety education is to purposefully misread and mislead the boating public as to our position,” says Schwartz.

After all was said, the two organizations acknowledged that their positions on boater licensing and education are virtually identical. BoatU.S.’s Michelman and Sea Tow CEO Joe Frohnhoefer say their organizations support mandatory boater education as the best way to improve boating safety. Both also say licensing has little merit as a tool for either boating safety or anti-terrorism. Education makes safer boaters, not licensing, they say. And if Homeland Security needs some form of boater identification to weed out terrorists, boaters ought to be able to show an automobile driver’s license or passport like airline passengers do, and the boat’s registration.

Michelman says BoatU.S. spoke out on the big gains in boating safety because some media had glommed onto Homeland Security’s licensing proposal and cited boating’s safety record as reason for adopting it. She says operating a boat is far safer than riding a bicycle, motorcycle or off-road vehicle.

Frohnhoefer says BoatU.S. came across as saying boating safety is no big deal anymore but agreed, “We’re probably on the same page.”

Case closed.