Frank's Blog - Yes, Finally
Licensing - 7 February, 2016
OK, full disclosure. I am a fully licensed Merchant Mariner. I hold a 50 ton, Near Coastal Master's license with Auxiliary Sail
and Assistance Towing endorsements. What's more, for about five years, I taught classes in seamanship, designed for
people who wanted to get their Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels (OUPV) license. These were classroom sessions,
not on-the-water courses, designed to fulfill the Coast Guard's knowledge requirements.
For those of you who do not know, the Coast Guard requires that a person applying for the OUPV (known sometimes as the
Six-Pack license, since the operator is restricted having no more than six passengers) to meet two different criteria for
knowledge. The first is that the operator must take and pass four multiple choice exams, one each in Navigation Rules, Deck
Seamanship, General Navigation and Chart Usage. The second is that the operator must be able to document 360 "days" at
sea. For this license, a day is generally accepted to be four or more hours away from the dock in a 24 hour period.
So, the idea would be that the combination of 53 hours of classroom instruction, combined with 360 "days" at sea, would be
sufficient indication that the person being evaluated has enough experience and education to operate safely. This is quite
possibly not true, but we will come back to that.
The bigger issue is that a lot of non-licensed people (and maybe a lot of licensed ones) see this as being a waste of time.
They refer to holders of these licenses as "checkbook captains," implying - and sometimes stating flat out - that holding a
USCG OUPV license is a waste and has no value. They believe that the person holding the license "bought it" and, by doing
so, "proved" that they didn't know what they were doing. I realize this sounds a little nuts, but I have actually engaged in
arguments with people who hold this opinion.
America is a fascinating place. It is one of the few places that I know of where people with education are looked down upon by
those without education. How many times have you heard someone say that "so-and-so has book learning, but no smarts"?
Or that someone "is too smart for his own good"? Or (my personal favorite) "he lives in an ivory tower world, he would never
survive in the real world"? As a nation, we "value" education, but only in the sense that it leads to a good job and, if you can
get by without an education, that's even better. Think I am overstating the case? Consider two college graduates - both with
degrees in biology - but one of them also can play football, while the other is going on to graduate school to get a master's in
education degree to teach high school science. Which one is going to get far more money, both immediately and over their
lifetime? It is not the education that makes a difference...
So, back to licensing. Does the license actually make a difference? That depends. If you want to work on the water, chances
are it does. You have to hold the license if you want to work - unless, of course, you fly way under the radar, you only deal
with word-of-mouth advertising and you carefully vet all of your customers to make sure none of them are going to rat you out
to the Coast Guard. Doesn't sound like fun to me, but each of us rows our own boat.
Here's where we get into the fuzzies. Let's talk about the "non-professional" boat owner. Should a license be required to
operate a boat? This is where the fecal matter truly hits the oscillating air mover. Ask this question of a dozen boat owners
and you will get two dozen replies, ranging from "well, of course" to "not only no, but hell no."
The pro argument is very succinct. As a society, we require people who want to operate a car to get a driver's license. We
require people who want to fly airplanes to get a license. Why should boats be given a "free pass" when we make sure
everyone else has appropriate skills, knowledge and insurance to operate motor vehicles?
The con argument is all over the map. Mostly, it is a rebuttal of the pro argument - there really isn't a good reason not to
license boat operators. So, the opposition generally points to the failures of the pro argument. For example, while we may
require people to have licenses to operate cars and planes, some people do so even though they don't have the licenses.
Another rebuttal is that, even though those people passed those licensing exams, they still drive (or fly) like idiots. Therefore,
the licensing process is a waste of time, since it doesn't weed out the bad drivers (or pilots).
Finally, the ultimate rebuttal is that, even if licensing is a good idea, we can't trust the government to do it, because "everyone
knows" that any time "the government" gets involved in something, it gets screwed up. "Why, just look at the DMV," the
argument goes, " they are so screwed up that everyone hates them."
Actually, in some cases, the "government" has gotten involved in boater licensing. According to the National Association of
State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA - if there ever was a group that needed an acronym makeover, this one is it!),
there are 41 states that have "mandatory" boater education law, although only one, Alabama, actually requires a "boater
license." The problem is that almost all of these states allow you to take and pass an "on-line" course in order to meet the
Now, these on-line courses can be quite extensive. The BOATUS test for Florida takes almost three hours to complete (each
page is timed to require you to spend a minimum of twenty seconds per page). The course covers a lot of material, both
general and Florida-specific.
But, at the end of the day, it is a knowledge test - not a skills test. There is no way for the state government to take each
boater out and assess their skills in actually operating their boat. The first part of the problem is that, unlike cars which are
fairly generic, boats have multiple hull forms, propulsion methods and operating characteristics. Things that would be
appropriate for a kayak would be totally inappropriate in a 65 foot motor yacht, or a 35 foot sailboat. It would be almost
impossible to create a "skills test" that would cover appropriate operation of every type of boat.
The second part of the problem is that, even if there were a single "skill set" check list, the state would have to find examiners
who could safely evaluate that skill set in a variety of boats. It is one thing to determine if the operator of a car can get safely
into and out of a parking space. It is another to determine if the operator of a boat can get safely into and out of a slip with
cross winds, head winds and tail winds, away from an anchorage with strong and weak current, can sail up wind and down
wind, row into a chop, and safely maneuver through the wake of another boat crossing, meeting and passing.
The Coast Guard, as I noted above, gets around this by simply requiring an operator to have 360 "days" underway. The
problem is that, unlike cars and planes, there is no requirement that the operator spend time with a qualified instructor before
getting behind the wheel. The only legal document required in (most of) the United States for operating a vessel is a check. If
you can buy it, you can operate it.
Now, here's where we get into "the" argument. Should there be some sort of mandatory "skills" training? While the obvious
answer would seem to be "yes," when we actually look at the boats we are talking about, well, maybe...
According to the Boat Owners Association of The United States (BOATUS - a much better acronym), 48% of all boats in
America are under 16 feet in length and 85% are under 26 feet (according to 2011 figures). Canoes, kayaks, row boats and
"other boats" make up almost 40% of all the boats in America. These boats are simply too small to have a "certified instructor"
on board and the need for one is minimal. PWCs - also known as jet skis - make up another 8%. While there are some two
seaters, it is difficult to imagine a significant learning environment where the certified instructor stays on board the vessel for a
PWC. It is true that a similar situation exists for motorcycles, but it is significantly easier to stand beside a motorcycle and offer
instruction than it is alongside a jet ski.
The other half of the equation is - what is the value gained by requiring instruction? While it is true that being on the water
with "ill trained, incompetent jerks" is annoying, how many accidents are there that we have the possibility of preventing.
Again in 2011, there were 758 deaths associated with recreational boating - for over 2,973,000,000 "exposure hours." For
every million hours people spent boating, 25 people died. There were, 129 casualties for every million person-hours spent
boating. Compare that with the 32,479 people killed in auto accidents that year and, in raw numbers, driving is far more
dangerous. While it doesn't seem to me that the feeling of losing a family member to an auto accident or a boating accident
would feel much different, the simple fact is that far fewer people die boating than die in cars.
Of course, we can always argue that "saving one life is worth it." But then, the easiest way to prevent any from being killed by
boating is to prohibit boating.
I don't think I would be willing to advocate that.