HONOLULU - A controversial new rule that requires boat operators to complete a safety course to operate power-driven vessels in state waters was approved Friday by the Board of Land and Natural Resources.
"There are more of us in the ocean today," said William J. Aila Jr., state Department of Land and Natural Resources chairman, in a news release Friday. "It is increasingly more crowded as people are diving and paddling farther from shore. We are experiencing more and more fatal accidents in our waters.
"It's the right time to raise awareness about the growth of the number of people using our waters to recreate and make sure everyone operating a vessel understands the rules of the road."
He said the department is working to create an education requirement "that improves safety for the entire ocean-user community yet is simple and reasonable for all boaters to comply with."
Seasoned boaters will be able to take equivalency exams if they think that they already understand the standard rules of the sea, the news release said. For new boaters, an online course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators takes three to four hours to complete.
The length of the test was a major objection of boat rental companies, who were worried that a several-hour-long test would destroy their businesses.
Ariel Ferrer, owner of Sea Escape Boat Rentals in Kihei, said in a Maui News report in June that the rule "would effectively terminate my long-standing business altogether, as it will make it more than inconvenient for any tourist to rent a boat in the state of Hawaii."
Tourists would not spend 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 the approved rule exempts renters of vessels, who receive a safety briefing from the boat livery operator that is approved for content by the state. There also is an exemption for vessels powered with motors less than 10 horsepower.
Other opponents of the rule said that it is an overreaction by the department to two fatal accidents last year in which boats struck swimmers in the waters off Lanai and Kaanapali. They say the majority of boaters in Hawaiian waters are responsible and have not had accidents.
Contrary to that view, the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation reported that it has paid out more than $860,000 in the last 10 years to remove boats that ran aground or sank in state waters.
"This does not include the damage to our coral reefs from vessels running aground and the littering of our shorelines with the debris from battered boats," Aila said. "Completion of a safety education course benefits everybody because it means improved safety and less marine debris and hazardous materials in our waters and marine life."
Many longtime boaters testified in support of the rule, as did boating safety instructors, the news release said. They emphasized the need for better-informed boaters in Hawaii to prevent accidents and fatalities as population and congestion on the ocean increases, and the importance of understanding how to behave around protected marine species.
The new rule will:
* Require a vessel operator to successfully complete a NASBLA- and state-approved boating safety course to legally operate a motor vessel.
* Require anyone operating a motor vessel who is under 16 years old to be accompanied and supervised by a someone 21 years or older who holds the required boater safety education certificate.
* Establish a fine between $50 and $1,000 for violators.
* Exempt those possessing a valid license to operate a vessel issued for maritime personnel by the U.S. Coast Guard.
* Exempt operators of vessels in Hawaii's waters who voyage here from outside the state and remain in state waters less than 60 calendar days.
* Go into effect 24 months after the rule is signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
Costs for the courses vary. One free course is currently available that would satisfy the proposed requirement, the news release said.
Boaters wanting more detailed instruction may take a classroom course from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or the local U.S. Power Squadron organizations. These classes require, on average, a 12-hour commitment but provide the student with practical knowledge that can make a difference in emergency situations, the news release said.