A Good Thing to Have... Whether You Need it or Not
While I'm not what you'd call a news junkie, I do consider myself as well-informed as the next guy. I usually start my day by cranking up the old laptop and checking the BBC website for a quick overview of what's happening in the world. And whenever I find myself on the road (or the water) alone, I listen to NPR ad nauseum. That's why I was a bit surprised to discover that North Carolina's boating license law had been in effect for over a year before I heard the first thing about it.
I'm sure that many of my readers are well aware of this law and, if so, I beg your pardon. But just in case some of you, like me, may have been looking the other way on May 1, 2010, that's when the new policy became law. Basically, what it means is that any person under the age of 26 who operates a vessel on N.C. public waters powered by an engine of ten horsepower or more must carry on board proof that he or she has successfully completed a boating safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. It allows for reciprocity with other states of residence and also exempts persons 16 years and older who operate PWCs (personal watercraft or “jet skis”). Persons as young as 14 may operate PWCs provided they possess a boating license.
For most of us who live on the Outer Banks and have grown up around boats this has the unpleasant aroma of government stepping over the line and limiting our individual freedom. When I consulted the official website of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to find out more about the “new” law, I wasn't at all surprised to see that the course could be taken online and the license issued for (you guessed it!) a fee.
But, after a little reflection, I had to admit that this development was inevitable. Several states whose waters are more congested than ours have had licensing requirements for years. And for the past twenty years as I've made numerous passages through the Intracoastal Waterway between here and South Florida, I've made a point of avoiding the more populous areas on weekends when the whole boating scene becomes a royal cluster-f... well, total chaos. And then the more I reflected on it, the more I began to wonder where our good legislators got their faith in the competence of boaters over 25. Seems to me that at least half of the nautical numbskulls and kami-kaze boaters I've seen have been well over 25.
So then I decided just to get over it and get on with life. As the new year dawned I resolved to endow each of my two teenaged kids with the $29.95 tuition for the online boating safety course. But early this morning as I went online to sign them up, I became mildly annoyed that the Wildlife Resources Commission only listed one of the several NASBLA approved online courses on its website and I decided to do a little comparison shopping. It didn't take long to discover that BOAT-US offers the same course at absolutely no cost! Needless to say, that was a little more in my price range so I decided to play guinea pig for my kids.
Although I didn't have time to plow through the course in one sitting, I managed to work it in around the rest of my daily routine (constitutional walk, another coat of varnish on the cockpit table, lunch with my younguns) and still managed to score 98 on the final exam (something about state boating statistics cost me two points) and pulled my certificate out of the printer well before cocktail hour. The material was certainly nothing new to a gray-bearded sailor whose Coast Guard master's ticket dates back to 1978,and it shouldn't be much of a challenge to the average Outer Banks twelve-year-old. In fact most twelve-year-olds would be more computer-savvy and therefore would not have had to call the BOAT-US support number three times. I seem to be all at sea when it comes to website navigation! But I must say that the BOAT-US support folks were really helpful and quickly resolved all the issues which were, of course, my fault.
The course consists of six chapters and a final exam. Each chapter consists of several pages of information, some with built in videos. Each page has a timer which prevents you from moving past it in less than (usually) 20 seconds. At The end of each chapter there's a multiple choice quiz which, if you don't pass, you have to review the entire chapter. The final exam is primarily made up of end-of-chapter quiz questions. Most of the questions have five possible answers, at least three of which will be instantly dismissed by anyone with an I.Q. at least as high as their body temperature.
All in all, I rather enjoyed the course and I whole-heartedly recommend it – not just for youngsters and not just for the inexperienced. In fact, the more boating experience a person has the more aware they should be of how much they still need to learn.
Somewhere on my cluttered shelves is a book by John Vigor in which he mentions his “Black Box Theory.” He says that aboard every boat there's an invisible black box. Every act of good seamanship goes into the black box: every time you replace a chafed dock line, re-pack the stuffing box or replace a fuel filter, for example, it all goes into the box. And then, one dark night when you're out there somewhere and oops turns to uh-oh!, the more you have in your black box, the better your chances of living to tell about it.
No matter how much you already might know, the state boating license is a worthy addition to your black box.