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Under Way March 2007

Your license and registration, please

Your license and registration, please

With twilight lingering as it only can in July, we began drifting with the ebb along a rocky shore on the backside of a striper island. A nice night of fishing lay ahead.

The wind was light and the waters calm and empty, save for a hard-running boat about three-quarters of a mile to our south. I glanced at it a couple of times but didn’t pay the boat much attention until it made a 90-degree turn and headed our way, fast. It maintained a dead-on course all the way in.

“He’s either an idiot,” I told my fishing partner, “or some kind of cop.”

It turned out to be the latter — specifically, three state marine officers in a rugged, aluminum patrol boat. They pulled alongside and we started small-talking. “Nice evening.” “How’s the fishing?” “Have you kept any fish?” While that was going on, you could tell they were carefully sizing up us and the boat. It’s what they do. I suspect they were looking for undersized fish or too many fish, but they never said that, and I didn’t ask.

And in this post-Sept. 11 world, I’m sure they also were keeping an eye out for bad guys. After all, I could reach within about a half-hour by boat a nuclear submarine builder, a nuclear power plant, an island where the government conducts animal disease testing, and an Interstate 95 bridge.

I had my boat registration, my state boating certificate and my driver’s license on me, but they didn’t ask to see any identification. We had passed their smell test — it was pretty obvious that with the possible exception of a couple of fish, we weren’t out to harm anyone or anything.

The reason I mention the incident now is that Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen is floating the idea of a national licensing or identification system for the country’s 77 million recreational boaters. It’s worth noting that the idea at this time has little to do with boating safety education — you wouldn’t have to pass a course, for instance, to get an ID card or license — and everything to do with homeland security.

Allen says small boats pose a significant threat to our national safety. He believes the potential exists for terrorists to either smuggle people or materials ashore using small boats, or to use those boats as weapons themselves, as was the case in the suicide bombing of the U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer USS Cole. For that reason, he’s looking for a fast, effective way to positively identify the people on the water. The admiral has said a marine officer should have the same authority and information capability as the patrol officer who pulls over someone on the highway. Hence, the federal ID or license idea.

My guess is that the commandant’s idea is going to run into some choppy water, which probably won’t surprise the admiral. He recently joked: “I’m trying to stick my toe in the water and see if I get bit by a piranha.”

For starters, there are those who believe boat licensing and mandatory education is the prerogative of states, not the federal government. Count the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators in that camp. Others believe there are better ways to accomplish the same goal. BoatU.S. vice president Michael Sciulla says it will be easier, faster and cheaper to pass a law requiring boaters to carry some existing form of identification — driver’s license, passport, student ID — than it would be to create an entirely new system.

“From our perspective it doesn’t make sense,” Sciulla says. “We already have a national identification system in place.”

And a federal ID is almost certain to attract fire from those who see it as an infringement on personal liberties. NASBLA executive director John Johnson agrees with the commandant’s assessment of danger. And Johnson says he personally wouldn’t find it onerous to have to carry some form of identification when boating — his driver’s license, for example. But he also understands how some boaters might view a federal ID program as an encroachment on their personal freedom.

“We’re an open society, and our openness is nowhere more apparent than along the waterfront,” says Johnson. “That’s why we like to go out there, because it is so uncontained and boundless.”

The Feds say they have no intention of trampling on individual freedoms. “The Coast Guard recognizes the freedom of navigation and the long history of mariners to operate their boats unencumbered,” says Cmdr. Brendan McPherson, the commandant’s press secretary.

At this point a federal license is just an idea. “He wants to have this discussion before the Coast Guard makes any specific proposals,” says McPherson.

I don’t bridle at the idea of having to carry ID on the water. I’m already required to have my boat registration and my Connecticut Safe Boating Certificate with me, and I typically carry my wallet as a matter of course. I do question whether we need a new federal system just for boaters. Why not use the existing forms of identification?

We live in a world that seems to be in perpetual reactive mode. We’re good at sitting back with the luxury of hindsight and criticizing. Why didn’t we see it coming? Why didn’t we do something sooner? Who can we blame this time?

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the concept, give the admiral credit for starting a discussion on this issue and how it might impact our community before there is an incident.