As boating traffic rises, experts call for stricter laws
Pleasure boats, kayaks and canoes will take to city waterways this Labor Day weekend to soak up summer’s last hurrah. But one boater’s paradise is another’s peril.
As boating has caught on, inexperienced mariners have taken to New York waters, resulting in accidents and near misses with commercial vessels, maritime experts say.
Last year, 24 recreational boaters died in New York State waters, up 60 percent from three years before, according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics. Nearly 100 people were injured, with the accidents causing $1.8 million worth of damage. The Coast Guard could not provide a breakdown for the city alone.
In July, a fisherman drowned when his boat got caught in an underwater depression in the Jamaica Bay. The following week, the Coast Guard rescued eight boaters off the coast of Liberty Island when their vessel ran aground.
Frequent boaters say the dangers of pleasure boating are exaggerated.
“The track record of recreational sailors is very, very good,” said Michael Fortenbaugh, founder of the 750-member Manhattan Sailing Club.
But maritime experts contend that New York City needs to get tougher with its recreational boating requirements. Minors must take boating classes in New York, but adults need no previous training before piloting a vessel.
In addition, recreational boats are not required to report their location to authorities, a growing concern as their numbers grow, said Petty Officer Seth Johnson of the New York Coast Guard, which is tasked with helping commercial boats navigate through the city’s waterways.
“Unfortunately, you can just buy a boat and go out in it,” said Eric Johansson, a professor at SUNY-Maritime College. “It’s like people being able to play on an air strip.”
Nearly 23,000 New Yorkers own boats, according to the most recent state figures. The numbers have fluctuated over the years, but boat ownership peaked in 2002 at 39,000. Recreational boating traffic is up in the city’s waterways, according to a 2008 Coast Guard assessment, and the harbor has become a destination for sailors across the world.
Popular boating locations include the East and Hudson rivers, Jamaica Bay and around the Battery and Liberty Island. The waters near Roosevelt Island and the Battery have strong currents that pose risks for boaters, even experienced ones.
Connecticut and New Jersey require that all adults take boating classes before they can sail. A pending bill in New York would mandate adults the same, with current boaters grandfathered into the rules.
“A boat is not a play toy at all,” said Assemb. Sandy Galef (D-Westchester), the bill’s sponsor.