OCEAN CITY — After a run of serious boating accidents in the resort involving rented vessels, including a fatal propeller strike two weeks ago that claimed the life of a child, a coalition of professional bay captains is pushing for tighter regulations and standards for the rental industry.
There have been three serious incidents involving rented pontoon boats in the bays around Ocean City in the span of about three weeks, including a fatal accident involving a 9-year-old child in mid-August, but the recent spike is not the catalyst for a coalition of professional inshore fishing boat captains and tour boat captains to push for increased safety measures and better training for boat renters.
To be sure, there are plenty of rock solid rental operators who maintain their vessels with the best safety equipment and provide extensive training and guidance to renters, but there are an in-kind number of operators who simply hand over the keys and send weekend warriors out in the crowded bay with little more than a quick briefing. It is the latter that is causing serious, sometimes fatal, incidents on the water. It is not a new problem and incidents have been reported for as long as there have been rented vessels of all shapes and sizes, from small jet skis to large pontoon boats carrying double-digit passengers, intermingling with thousands of other boats out on the water on a typical summer day.
However, Captain Steve Whitelock of the Happy Hooker, who represents a coalition of a dozen or so professional captains who routinely work the bays, from inshore charter boats to various tour boats, continue to push for more regulation and control on the rental industry. Whitelock emphasized the recent fatal accident involving a child was not the catalyst for the effort. Instead, the professional captains have been knocking on doors, making phone calls and sending emails to anyone who will listen to no avail.
“We’ve been to the state and have been told there is little they can do, and we’ve been to the County Commissioners and the Mayor and Council, but they don’t have much say in what goes on in the water,” he said this week. “We don’t want to take people’s livelihoods away. We make our living on the water too.”
Whitelock emphasized the intent for the renewed effort to tighten up boat and jet ski rental business is not to penalize the industry, but merely to have better standards in place to reduce the number of incidents.
“At the same time, we have boats running into our boats and people doing stupid things out there every day,” he said. “We’re getting tired of the near misses and there are probably a dozen of them every day. Don’t get me wrong, there are good operators who care and do the right thing and maintain their boats with all of the safety equipment, but there are quite a few that don’t.”
Professional boat captains undergo rigorous training and testing and their vessels are inspected routinely, but there is a different standard for rental boat operators.
“There is no requirement for them to have a boater safety card,” he said. “It’s akin to putting a person behind the wheel of a car without a driver’s license and putting them out on the road at a time when there is the most traffic.”
Whitelock said a vacationer who plans to rent a boat and take his or her friends and family out on the bay can take a boating safety course on line in advance of the trip, but few take advantage of the program.
“You can get the boater safety card with an online test that takes a couple of hours, but what we’re hearing is that is too much of a requirement,” he said. “Instead, they get a briefing for about 15 minutes. I teach a boating safety class and it takes eight hours, and I feel like I can’t cover everything they need to know in eight hours, but here you have inexperienced boaters heading out with a short briefing.”
According to Whitelock, the same can be said of the jet ski rentals in many cases. Often, the jet ski guides have little training, yet they are leading packs of inexperienced operators through the crowded bays.
“The jet ski guides have to take two classes including a boating safety class and a jet ski guide class, but they are not required to even step on a jet ski as part of the training,” he said. “They can get hired in the morning and be out on the water as a guide that afternoon. In some cases, there is no hands-on training.”
Whitelock said the coalition of professional captains understands the issues are complex and there is no quick fix, but offered a few recommendations that could be implemented fairly easily.
“We’d like to see a baseline on what we all agree on,” he said. “There are some simple common sense things that can be done that would improve the situation.”
The Maryland Natural Resource Police and the Coast Guard are charged with monitoring the waters in and around the bay for violations and generally do an outstanding job, but with limited resources and manpower amid the thousands of vessels on the water on a given summer day, improving safety will take a commitment from the rental operators and the renters themselves.
“One thing that needs to be addressed is limiting the number of people on the rental boats,” said Whitelock. “They might leave the dock with the right number of people on board, but they stop by this bar or that restaurant and pick up a few more passengers along the way. It used to be little skiffs with three or four passengers, but some of the pontoons being rented are way over capacity. What we’re seeing now is bigger boats with more and more horsepower and they are inherently more dangerous with inexperienced operators at the helm.”
Another recommendation from the coalition of professional captains is stepping up the inspection process. Whitelock said the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers free boat inspections, so there is really no reason not to have all rental vessels inspected.
“We’d like to see more inspections,” he said. “Our boats are inspected by the Coast Guard every year and we’re not complaining about that because it’s the right thing to do. We even have to take a tonnage course if we’re going to carry more than six passengers. These are just some common sense things and we’re required to do it. Why would a person renting a boat for the first time need less regulation than we do. We’re not complaining about the regulations and believe me, we would welcome more if we felt it would make things safer, but there should be some base requirements for renting boats.”
Of course, another recipe for disaster is adding alcohol to inexperienced rental boat operators and their passengers.
“We think alcohol has to be better regulated,” he said. “We saw a rental boat going out with four cases of beer, two bottles of liquor and a beer bong. So, you have inexperienced operators and alcohol added to the mix and it’s a bad recipe. The operator might not even be drinking, but inebriated passengers can be a distraction and in some cases cause incidents. We’ve seen a lot of that.”
While much of the focus has been on the pontoon rental side, particularly because of the recent incidents, there are other inherent problems with the jet ski rentals.
“There should be a two-guide minimum,” he said. “Right now, there is one guide for every five. They also shouldn’t be able to go out in such large groups. We see cases of 15 rentals with three guides, so that’s 18 jet skis in a line that can stretch a mile long. That completely disrupts the flow of traffic and raises the possibility of collisions.”
Whitelock said despite the recent spike in serious and even fatal accidents, the issues are not new ones and the professional bay captains have been pushing for change for years now. He said the professional captains realize a complete overhaul of the boat rental industry isn’t practical, and probably not even needed, but a few tweaks might improve safety and perhaps save a life.
“It’s a start,” he said. “We think things need to change. Even a small change can make a difference and might lead to bigger and better changes. Again, we don’t want to disrupt anyone’s livelihood and there are some great operators out there, but there has to be more controls in place.”
Whitelock reiterated the professional captains’ efforts are not targeting any one industry and repeated most rental operators genuinely care, but changes are needed or the number of incidents will continue to increase.
“We have no desire to see people lose their income, but we do have a desire to see less people injured,” he said. “We’re only talking about Ocean City and we can’t speak for the rest of the state, but we hear the same types of problems are going on all over the state. It’s partly the state and it’s partly the rental companies, but it’s also partly the inexperienced renters. No matter what you do, you can’t stop people from doing stupid things. There is no easy solution, but there are some things that can be changed.”