August’s fatal crash on Long Lake revealed three truths about the state of Maine boating:

1. For most Maine’s lakes and rivers, there is no limit on size or horsepower of motor vessels;

2. The warden service is too understaffed to enforce speed limits upon these same lakes and rivers;

3. Boaters can be of any age and experience, and are exempt from mandatory safety training, unlike how automobile drivers or hunters are treated.

In rare worst-case scenarios – say, a speedboat smacking into a dinghy and killing two people – these sparse requirements for boating on Maine’s lakes and ponds are a travesty.

This should concern all boaters. Not only are these regulations unequal compared to other transports and recreations, but they afford little public protection.

Without stringent enforcement, safe boating on Maine’s inland waterways operates on, for lack of a better phrase, the honor system. Boaters must trust other boaters to know the rules, and act safely.

In most cases, and on most days, this system works well. There is grumbling about boat noise, size and behavior, but this is similar to how drivers evaluate other drivers. “Good driving” is a purely subjective analysis.

Yet drivers know one thing – the other driver did, if licensed, receive training on the rules of the road. Boaters neither have this assurance, nor knowledge the person driving the boat is of an appropriate age and has the appropriate skill to do so.

This uncertainty becomes compounded when the vessel bearing down upon an unsuspecting safe boater is, to use the example from Long Lake, a 32-foot, 900-horsepower missile that, really, was too much boat on too little a lake.

Maine boaters shouldn’t wonder whether an oncoming boat – of any size or speed – is being driven by an unsafe person, incapable and/or untrained in its operation.

Lawmakers, including Rep. Richard Sykes of Harrison, have submitted bills this session to tighten Maine’s boating regulations. Two drawing attention are Sykes’ bill for horsepower restrictions on Long Lake, and a Bath lawmaker’s bill for the gradual introduction of mandatory safety education for all Maine boaters.

Both have merit, and deserve support. We like Rep. Thom Watson’s gradual integration of safety training from the youngest boaters onto everyone, because a bureaucratic mandate would be a logistical nightmare, and inconvenience responsible boaters, who may not immediately need training.

With horsepower restrictions, Long Lake would become a litmus test. A rational limit – 500 total horsepower would suffice – should prove whether such limits make waterways safer.

The limit could be later altered. It also makes sense to move such limits from legislative action to the purview of an agency, like the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to ease their review.

Maine’s heritage is about enjoying lakes and ponds safely. Current regulations are insufficient, and should be tightened. Horsepower limits and safety training may not have stopped August’s crash.

But it could prevent the next one, and make boating safer overall, too.


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