There's plenty to know before you go boating


by Harry Vliet





Published in the Asbury Park Press 07/1/05



Trooper Rich Caputo of the State Police Marine Services Bureau tows a boat back to shore Wednesday after it ran out of gas in the Manasquan River and signaled for help.


The New Jersey State Police Marine Services Bureau can stop boaters for a variety of reasons, including:

GENERAL BOATING OFFENSES: Speeding on the water; operating a boat erratically; children not wearing life preservers. Fines vary according to the offense

DRUNKEN BOATING: Under state law, if a boat operator's blood-alcohol level is between 0.08 and 0.10, the operator can face a fine of $250 to $400, lose boating privileges for one year and forfeit his driver's license for three months. If the blood-alcohol level is higher than 0.10, fines and penalties increase.

The stranded boaters being assisted by Trooper Caputo are Johnny Wood, (left), 16 and James Alworth, 15, both of Point Pleasant.

Ask Harry Vliet the biggest boating problem he faces every summer, and the veteran State Police lieutenant sums it up in one word: inexperience.


Vliet, assistant chief for the State Police Marine Services Bureau, has been dealing with boaters' problems for more than six years along New Jersey's waterways.


All other problems, from operating drunk to accidents, stem from inexperience, Vliet said.


"Our biggest concern is people who don't have the experience and knowledge to operate vessels properly," Vliet said as the bureau and the Coast Guard prepare for prime boating season, which starts July Fourth weekend. "That's our biggest problem: people who don't know the rules and don't have the experience."


Vliet prefers that boat owners overcome inexperience in the classroom rather than on the water, and the State Police, Coast Guard and various boating organizations all urge boaters to take safety courses and to keep up on the largest changes to the laws.


Operators of boats or personal watercraft must be 16 or older. State law requires boaters operating power vessels, including personal watercraft, to obtain boat safety certificates.


If that does not work, State Police and Coast Guard crews will stop unsafe operators in the water. Most times, warnings suffice. Other times, authorities issue summonses.


Earlier this year, the State Police and Coast Guard formalized an agreement that allows greater cooperation to enforce boating laws. The two organizations also signed agreements related to homeland security.


So far, the agreement has paid some dividends.


While statistics aren't up to date, Vliet said his troopers have seen a slight increase in the number of drunken-boating arrests made so far this year.


As with driving, the legal limit for boaters is a blood alcohol content of 0.08.


The Coast Guard has cited nine people for drunken boating along the Jersey coast so far this year. In 2004, they issued four summonses for the whole year.


"Our biggest goal is to educate the general boating public," said Steve McDonnell, who recently became the commanding officer for the Coast Guard's operations in the Manasquan Inlet and Shark River. "Personally, I think strong relations with the State Police and other local law enforcement can lead to a successful season and allow us to continue our other missions, including search and rescue."


Watercraft tragedies


Personal watercraft pose major safety problems, and the Monmouth-Ocean counties area has seen several high-profile accidents in recent years.


"We've seen a lot more volume on the waterways," in part because of the small boats, Vliet said.


In 2003, Stephen Praschak, a deputy chief of detectives for the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, was injured when he was hit by a watercraft. A 15-year-old was eventually charged with aggravated assault.


In 2002, Alton Ara Hovnanian, 15, of Middletown was killed when his personal watercraft slammed into the side of a sailboat moored on the Navesink River. In that same year, Richard C. Gallagher, 19, of Berkeley was killed when his personal watercraft collided with a speedboat.


Melissa Danko, the executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey, which has its main office in Brick, said her group has backed bills introduced in the Assembly and state Senate that would mandate safety education for boaters, including personal watercraft operators.


Also, Danko said her group tries to reach out to customers at trade shows and other events to promote boating safety.


Boaters offer ideas


On a recent day at the William Donovan Municipal Marina in Manasquan — sometimes known as the Glimmer Glass marina — Bob Grunder stored his fishing poles away on his 26-foot boat.


For law enforcement, Grunder is the best example of the responsible boater.


Each year, Grunder has his boat inspected by the Coast Guard Auxiliary. He has taken safety courses and has been boating for more than 30 years.


For the most part, said Grunder, who lives in Manasquan and describes himself as an avid striped bass fisherman, the Coast Guard and State Police do a good job patrolling the area.


However, Grunder would like to see more enforcement at the Manasquan Inlet, where he said large fishing and party boats create wakes and create a danger for smaller vessels like his.


"It would be nice if everybody behaved as they should," Grunder said.


Not far away, Tom Cusmano got his grandfather's boat ready for a day of early morning fishing. Like other local boat owners, Cusmano prefers to fish on weekdays.


"It's too crowded during the weekend, but I'm privileged enough to work in a bar, so my days are free," Cusmano, 24, said. "When you do go out, you have to keep your eyes open all the time."


Crowding in New Jersey's waterways, especially in summer, remains a public safety concern, said McDonnell of the Coast Guard.


"You have a lot of congestion, and that makes a big difference," said McDonnell, who recently was transferred to New Jersey from southern Florida. "Boats don't have brakes, so you're committed to a certain speed, and when you introduce alcohol as a factor, there's a risk. We have to be alert, and so does the public for these risks, and then we can make sure everyone has a good day."