Maui's boating community has mixed reactions to a proposed state rule that would require recreational boaters operating motorized vessels to complete a one-time safety course, or face fines of up to $1,000.
Some boaters say the rule proposed by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources will impact their small boat rental businesses, and they cited it as another case of "over-regulating" by the state. Other boaters say they would comply to help improve safety.
"I'm in the boat business for 35 years, so I deal with a lot of people who are boaters," said Brian Blundell, who owns Central Pacific Marine, a marine engine sales and repair business in Lahaina. "The majority of the people out there are responsible. They look after their equipment. They have never had an accident or anything. The majority of people operating boats, I feel, are responsible.
Boats are moored Saturday at Maalaea Small Boat Harbor. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is proposing rules for recreational boaters that would require those operating motorized vessels to complete a one-time safety course or face fines of as much as $1,000.
The Maui News / BRIAN PERRY photo
"By going this route the DLNR is going, is just another case of over-regulating," he said.
Blundell said the proposed rule is an overreaction by the department in light of two fatal boating accidents last year in which boats struck men in the water - one off Lanai and the other off Kaanapali.
Ariel Ferrer, owner of Sea Escape Boat Rentals in Kihei, said his business would be terribly impacted. He told state officials it "would effectively terminate my long-standing business all-together, as it will make it more than inconvenient for any tourist to rent a boat in the state of Hawaii."
Tourists would not spend as much as several hours to take a state-required test to enable them to enjoy a boating activity that is only a few hours long, Ferrer said.
But longtime recreational and commercial fisherman Norm Ham said he would have no problem complying with the proposed rule, noting that he already took it upon himself about 11 years ago to take a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary course on boating. He said he only received a certificate of completion and does not hold a Coast Guard license issued by the agency.
"The boaters, they don't want to be infringed upon. (But) it's something that has to be done," the Pukalani resident said of the proposed safety course.
Last month, the DLNR held public hearings across the state regarding the proposed rule. Currently, the department is reviewing possible rule revisions based on public testimony. The next step will be for action by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, which could happen in July. Then, the rule is expected to be submitted to Gov. Neil Abercrombie for his signature.
DLNR Chairman William Aila Jr. said many states across the country have found that boating education "not only saves lives, it also reduces accidents."
"And, if fewer vessels run aground, that's less we expend to remove them from our near-shore areas," he said.
In the last 10 years, the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation has spent more than $860,000 to remove boats that ran aground or sank in state waters, he said.
"Completion of a safety education course benefits everybody because it means improved safety and less marine debris and hazardous materials in our waters," Aila added. "It also means that our boaters must understand rules and regulations which protect marine life, including protected species like the humpback whale, monk seals and sea turtles."
The state cites a decade of U.S. Coast Guard data on recreational boating accidents and notes that Hawaii ranked fifth on the list of highest fatality rates, with 10.46 deaths per 100,000 vessels. Although Hawaii has a relatively low annual fatality count (since 1995, there have been an average of 2.88 fatalities per year), highly publicized boating-related fatalities in Hawaii have inspired bills to require boater safety education training.
In addition to requiring recreational boaters to obtain a certificate of completion from the state and National Association of State Boating Law Administrators for the safe use and operation of certain power-driven vessels, the state also proposes a rule that:
* Sets a minimum age of 15 for operating a vessel unsupervised.
* Establishes a fine of between $50 and $1,000 for violators (there also could be jail time imposed of no more than 30 days per each violation), and the court could prevent an individual from operating a vessel in state waters for up to 30 days.
* Exempts those possessing a valid license to operate a vessel issued for maritime personnel by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The rule would go into effect 24 months after it is signed by the governor.
State officials said thrill craft operators, such as those that have a personal watercraft, also are exempt because they already have their own certification process.
Clifford Inn, the state division's boating safety education specialist, said that currently there is no minimum age for one to operate a vessel unsupervised. So, technically, even a 2-year-old could operate a vessel legally.
At the urging of testimony from members of the public and business owners, exemptions to the rules might be made. Those could include exempting vessels that have less than a 10-horse-power motor and dropping the age restriction to 10 to 12 years old, instead of the proposed 15 years.
State officials said they also have been asked to make an exemption for boat rental services, which would offer renters a boating safety orientation, which would be approved by the state.
Ferrer said he would like to see rental businesses allowed to give the safety orientation.
"Safety is the number one priority for our company and always has been for the 24 years we have been in business," he said. "Prior to each boat rental, we provide a detailed orientation and safety review course to each and every individual who rents our boats."
He added that each renter takes the company's safety orientation and demonstrates his or her ability to properly and safely operate the company's boats. Otherwise, the boats are not rented to the customer.
Inn said there is a free online safety course, and the state is investigating the use of free home-study courses as well as classroom courses, which he hopes would cost less than $50.
The boating rule may be viewed online at hawaii.gov/ dlnr/dbor/bordraftrules.htm or at any small boat harbor from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, except holidays. If one is unable to review the rule online or in person, a copy can be mailed after payment of required fees upon verbal or written request to the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, 333 Queen St., Suite 300, Honolulu 96813. For more information, call (808) 587-0142.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.