OCEAN CITY — After a run of serious boating accidents in the resort this summer, including a fatal propeller strike that claimed the life of a child in August, a coalition of professional bay captains initiated a push for tighter regulations and standards for the rental industry, and it appears their efforts have not fallen on deaf ears.
There were three serious incidents involving rented pontoon boats in the bays around Ocean City in the span of about three weeks in August, including a fatal accident involving a 9-year child who fell off a boat while bow-riding, prompting a coalition of professional captains to push for increased safety measures and better training for boat renters before they are simply handed the keys and sent out on the water. The issues have existed for years, and while the timing coincided with the fatal accident involving the child, that incident was alone not the catalyst for the boat captains to seek change.
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.
To that end, the coalition of professional candidates out on the bays each and every day throughout the summer have come up with a list of recommendations for improving boating safety. Their efforts have caught the attention of the area’s legislators in Annapolis, who have been meeting over the last several weeks with Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Natural Resources Police (NRP) officials on potential legislation to address the problems.
In her fall email update issued this week, Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (R-38C) reported in light of the particularly tragic summer on the waters in and around Ocean City this summer, she, along with Senator Jim Mathias (D-38), has been in contact with top DNR and NRP officials to seek their guidance and assistance on options for increasing boating safety.
Carozza said possible options explored include clarifying and strengthening current boating safety regulations in general and the issue of bow-riding specifically. Carozza said possible legislation regarding bow-riding could come out of those discussions. However, that option would be explored only after consulting with all of the stakeholders, including the rental companies themselves.
“Before we move forward, we need to hear the perspective and recommendations from those on the front lines- our Natural Resources Police, local boat captains, those running boat and jet ski rentals and the general public who use and enjoy our local waters,” she said.
For his part, Mathias said the seeds for possible legislation banning bow-riding were planted shortly after the tragic accident that claimed the 9-year-old in August.
“A couple of days after that tragic incident, one of the investigators called me and brought the whole issue of bow-riding to my attention,” he said. “If you have somebody riding on the bow and you hit a wake or something, off they go. The engineering of a pontoon boat channels an overboard swimmer that falls off the bow directly underneath to the blades of an outboard.”
Mathias said the NRP and the Coast Guard can issue citations when they observe bow-riding under broader regulations, but there is currently no law specific to bow-riding.
“This has been an observation for some time,” he said. “They can be cited for reckless operation or reckless endangerment, but there is no legislation on the books governing bow-riding. The DNR secretary told me it has been attempted in years past, but it keeps getting deferred because it’s considered an operational issue.”
In a larger sense, Mathias said all of the concerns raised by the coalition of professional bay captains could be addressed, either by legislation or stricter enforcement. In either case, the DNR and NRP are now aware of their concerns.
“The charter captains reached out to us with an array of things,” he said. “They were specifically interested in the bow-riding issue, but they have a list of concerns in a larger sense about the training and preparation given to the boaters. They put together a whole list of concerns and recommendations and now that list is in front of the people who can affect a change if it’s warranted.”
In the big scheme of things, improving boating safety on the crowded waters in and around the resort will likely take a collaborative effort. The incident that claimed the life of the child in August could be the catalyst.
“Clearly, it was a tragic incident,” said Mathias. “In the years I’ve been able to serve publicly, I have always tried to make sure a tragic loss is not in vain. If we discuss these recommendations with all of the stakeholders and determine we need to put forth legislation, we’re ready to do that. We need the eyes and ears of the boat captains, the eyes and ears of the recreational boaters, the Coast Guard and everyone else with a stake in this. We also need to make sure we include a conversation with the rental industry because they are a big part of this.”