Politicians, boating experts talk water safety

Community news


State senators and assemblymen representing Long Island are looking to adopt new boating laws to create safer waterways and establish uniform rules in cooperation with neighboring states. At a public hearing in Oyster Bay on Aug. 8, concerned citizens offered legislators suggestions on what kind of bill ought to be written.

Among the many people advocating for new boating laws were Paul and Lisa Gaines, the parents of 7-year-old Victoria Gaines, one of three young passengers who died when the Kandi Won, a 34-foot cabin cruiser, capsized in the waters of Cove Neck on July Fourth. Victoria’s friend Harlie Treanor, 11, also died in the accident, just weeks after moving with her family from East Meadow to Huntington Station.

The Gaines family implored the elected officials — who included Sens. Jack Martins of Mineola, Carl Marcellino of Syosset and Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson and Assemblymen David McDonough of Merrick and Michael Montesano of Glen Head — to require all leisure craft to post maximum occupancy and weight limits, to establish a mandatory safety course for boaters and to increase police presence on the water during popular events such as Jones Beach concerts and area fireworks shows.

The goal, said Michael Della, an attorney representing the Gaines family, is to save lives. “The Gaines family refuses to accept that [Victoria’s] death will have been in vain …,” Della said. “If we can save one life, we’ve done our job.”

Jackie Martin, a boating safety advocate and the commodore of the Greater Huntington Council of Yacht and Boating Club, agreed that mandatory boating safety courses are needed, but, she said, implementing them would require “careful review and planning.” She added that mandating safety certifications, like those required in New Jersey and Connecticut, would be preferable to issuing boating licenses.

Currently, safety courses are required only for boaters 18 or younger. In New York, an adult can purchase and operate a boat with no experience and no safety training. “There’s something inherently wrong with that,” said Martins, adding that a friend of his who was an inexperienced boater bought a boat in Massachusetts and drove it to New York without having to take a safety course.

Marcellino questioned whether New York has the resources to implement a mandatory boating safety certificate. Lawrence Postel, district commander of the United States Power Squadron, suggested phasing in a safety course over several years. In New Jersey, Postel explained, a law requiring safety education was implemented in stages based on boaters’ birth dates, and was fully enforced by 2009.

Postel added that a tax on boating fuel that now funds general highway improvements should instead be allocated to help pay for boating safety courses.

The elected officials asked if there are enough law enforcement officers patrolling the waterways, and experts’ answers varied. According to Sgt. John Owen, deputy commanding officer of the Nassau County Police Department Marine Bureau, there are enough officers, but there are problems with follow-up. He explained that there is no comprehensive database for Boating While Intoxicated tickets and no increase in penalties for repeat offenders. Owen added that, unlike New Jersey, BWI tickets are not reported to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Town of Huntington’s director of maritime services, Ed Carr, said that patrols are lacking. “Given our geographical size and resources available, it is impossible for bay constables to be everywhere at once,” Carr said. “Therefore, having a boating public that is educated and competent is essential to mitigate risk.” Carr added that the patrols on Huntington waterways are similar to those across Long Island.

While politicians and boating safety experts expressed hope that new laws could reduce accidents, they agreed that common sense is the best way to do that. “You can’t legislate courtesy, caution and common sense,” said Larry Weiss, the state’s legislative liaison to the U.S. Power Squadron, “and we can try to teach it in a class, but we can’t instill it.”

“If we could wave our wand and make people think,” Marcellino added, “we would be happy to do it.”