Officials: Recreational Boat Regs Don't Address Overcrowding

Despite recent tragedy, officials cannot penalize boaters who pack their vessels.

In the wake of recent tragedy, the waters of enforcement for boaters who overcrowd their vessels are still murky.

In recent days, a devastating when a boat carrying over 24 guests capsized, leading some to question whether the tragedy was caused by a wake from another vessel or possible overcrowding on the 34-foot Silverton cabin cruiser.

On Sunday in Wading River, f; a marine rescue brought all who were thrown into the Long Island Sound, screaming for help — including a 7-year-old boy — to safety.

But despite wide public attention to a burgeoning problem, officials say in New York State, laws don't address the issue of overcrowding recreational vessels.

Sally Drake, a spokeswoman for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, said all regulations concerning capacity on boats are federally determined. No federal regulations exist regarding capacity on recreational boats sized similarly to the vessels involved in the recent Long Island accidents, she said.

United States Coast Guard Long Island Sound sector Petty Officer West, who declined to give his first name, said there are no regulations regarding the number of individuals who can ride on a recreational vehicles.

He added recreational vehicles have capacity plates stating manufacturers' standards regarding weight limit and the number of individuals suggested for a vessel. "But we don't really enforce it," West said. "It's up to the owner's discretion."

The Coast Guard can enforce safety equipment standards and cite boat owners who do not adhere to regulations. "We can recommend not having that many people on board but we can't tell them what to do," he said. "We can't really tell people how to run their boats." 

If a vessel is overloaded, West added, a Coast Guard officer could "recommend termination" of the journey and bring individuals in to port but would not be able to write up any violations. "There is no law against overloading your boat," he said.

State regulations do exist addressing life jackets: Anyone under 12 years of age on a vessel less than 65 feet must wear a life jacket in New York State, unless situated in an enclosed cabin, according to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). Those not adhering to the regulation can be fined between $25 and $100.

Rachel Johnson, communications director at the National Safe Boating Council, said while no regulations regarding capacity exist at the current time, owners should be aware of, and follow, the capacity recommendations on their vessels.

The mission of her organization, Johnson said, is to promote safer boating through public education and training, especially the "Wear It" program that advocates all individuals wearing life jackets at all times while boating.

The top five factors that contribute to boating accidents, Johnson said, are operator inattention, improper lookout, or not having a view of the entire circumference of the vessel, operator inexperience, excessive speed, and machinery failure.

"One of our main focuses is life jacket wear," Johnson said. She added that individuals involved in 70 percent of all fatal boating accidents drowned, and 84 percent of that number were not wearing life jackets. "A lot of those stories would not have ended in tragedy had they chosen to wear life jackets," she said.

While Johnson admits many adults resist the notion of life jackets, new models have been created that are much smaller and lightweight, and can be inflated by pulling a chord in the event of an emergency. Some are as small as a belt fanny pack, she said. "These are great alternatives for adults ages 16 and over," Johnson said.

Gary Joyce, an Aquebogue resident who is also a New York Sate-certified boating safety instructor, a United States Coast Guard licensed captain, and an instructor with the United States Power Squadron, said public compliance, when it comes to water safety, is key.

"The regulations that are in place are fine and won't require updating, just adherence, along with common sense -- and that's the hard part," Joyce said.

He added that it is the captain's or boat operator's responsibility to ensure that their vessel is operated in a safe manner at all times. "They are ultimately responsible for what goes on in their boat," Joyce said.

When teaching boating safety courses, Joyce said he gives a short lecture on where all safety equipment is located, how the radio operates, how to turn on and shut off engines, and the importance of personal flotation devices and life jackets, before ever leaving the dock.

"There's a move afoot with all the organizations that life jackets be worn by everyone, but, at worst, you'd better make sure any non- to poor swimmers have them, that you have enough for your passenger count, and that they're in proper shape. And every child 12 and under better have one on when on deck," Joyce said. "Lastly, if you haven't taken a boating safety class from some organization — do so." 

Joyce said while there is no law, such as legislation that exists for boating while intoxicated, "That's where the commons sense factor comes in. You shouldn't overload your boat, period."

Other factors such as sea conditions must be considered. "Most of the errors are due to lack of knowledge, plus the fact that I think most people think because they can see land, they're not in a hostile environment — again, another mistake," Joyce said. "Unless you have gills, you're a guest, not an occupant."

No new law is needed, Joyce believes.  "Education, education, education. And you still need common sense — and there's nada you can do about that."

What do you think? Should federal and state officials get serious about addressing boat capacity? Should legislation be introduced to prevent tragedy? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Erica Jackson (Editor) July 10, 2012 at 09:08 PM
Kathy Ficara said via Facebook, "I will say this......I have been a boater for 17 years ranging in size from a 19 foot to 34 foot to a 53 foot and a 34 foot boat should not have 27 people on it!!!! I personally wouldn't have 27 people on my 53 foot boat. It is their right but one should use common sense. I have been in wakes of other vessels and rough waters from the Bahamas to Fla to Canada and even on Long Island and a boat in those conditions can capsize ever easily. If the fly bridge had to many people on it and to many people on one side of the boat, a wake or storm could very easily capsize a boat. A wake or storm with just 3 prople on it can capsize in the right conditions. Just saying....and this is only my opinion."
Walter Kaprielian July 10, 2012 at 10:36 PM
The reason for that tragedy was pure and simple stupidity. I have had a US Coast Guard Captain's license for 40 years and wouldn't dream of having that many people on board a 34 ft Silverton, much less in the dark. As captain, you are responsible for every one of the people you have on board. That boat with it's large bridge area is top heavy at best, only making the possibility of it being an unstable platform even more probable. If that boat navigating a bay area with wakes of boats being the sea condition, what would it do in a rough offshore environment. It was poor judgement to take that many people out. Terrible tragedy that could have been a lot worse.
Benja Schwartz July 11, 2012 at 01:03 AM
Know your boat. We all live on the same "boat". It is a planet called earth. When we overload our boat it will flip over.
Benja Schwartz July 11, 2012 at 01:05 AM
Don't we have laws against endangering the welfare of minors?
Brian July 11, 2012 at 10:58 AM
Although its a tragedy, do we really need another law to respond to this? No. Benja, good points .
Ernest Fred July 11, 2012 at 11:51 AM
Why would we not require boatersto have licenses? The fact is many boaters don't take a course, and simply don't know what they are doing. This puts everyone arround them, and their passengers, at risk. Putting 27 people on that boat? Anyone with basic knowledge of boats, loads and sea conditions, and how boats behave when loads are not balanced would not even entertain putting more than 15 people on a boat that size.
Abe July 11, 2012 at 02:11 PM
We do not need new laws to regulate lack of common sense. Do we need a law to say you can't put 100 sheets of sheetrock on the roof of your car? Or to not barbeque in your living room?
us July 11, 2012 at 03:45 PM
The USCG will usually send an overcrowed boat "back to shore". A capacity plate is attached to each boat and is near the helm. If a boat doesn't have a capacity plate, the formula for determining a boats passenger capacity is, length times width divided by 15. Example: 24 feet long X 8 feet wide divided by 15. This is a guide for passengers weighing and average of 150lbs each.
Mels Ditties July 12, 2012 at 12:31 PM
When the story broke, my 1st reaction was "27 people on a 34' boat"???...While we are relatively new to the boating life (6 years now with our 27' Rinker) I just couldn't see how that boat could possibly be safe with all those people and then I saw the videos of the boat on the news this am and couldn't believe how small it looked...NO WAY there should have been that many people...I get the "let's all go see the fireworks" idea, safety should ALWAYS be #1 on the water...Boats aren't toys..it's just waaay too easy to get into serious trouble in a second in the water...especially at night at a gathering like fireworks...If you've ever been in the water between Mt. Sinai harbor and PJ Harbor you'd understand...There are HUNDREDS of boats gathered...It's dark...Soooo many people are drunk...(especially on a holiday) and many of the captains are not used to piloting their boats at night.... Bad decision probably combined with a hotshot who just HAD to take off after the end of the show too fast causing boat rocking wakes.... So sad for the young lives lost....May they rest in best...and may the rest of us take their images with us when we head out on the water...Let them be the beacon of THINK before you BOAT!


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