SACRAMENTO -- The debate over whether California should make boater education mandatory seemed to shift Thursday from whether the state should start a program to how requirements would work.

As the state boating department held a second public hearing, officials acknowledged that the sentiment here and at a similar event last month in Los Angeles indicates members of the boating public generally agree that training should be required.

"Everybody wants it. The question is, how do we do it? How do we train a million people?" said H.G. Laragione, director of the Maritime Institute in San Diego.

Even if a consensus to do something has been reached, it marks only the beginning of what safety advocates say will be a long fight to pass legislation. A sponsor of a potential bill has yet to emerge, and the phase-in of any program would take years.

"It is going to take us two to three years to get to the point where we could implement it. It isn't going to happen overnight," said Raynor Tsuneyoshi, director of the state Department of Boating and Waterways.

Among the issues discussed were whether training should include a proficiency test similar to a road test for driving a car or whether it would be only classroom instruction; whether to exempt veteran boaters from any new requirements; what to require of people renting boats; and who would administer the program.

A Times analysis of Coast Guard data published July 2 showed that 88 percent of boating accidents in Northern California over a nine-year period were caused by boat operators who either did not know or ignored basic safety rules. In the Sacramento Delta region, that figure increased to 91 percent, the data showed.

"The confined spaces on the Delta and lakes" make boating there more dangerous than in open coastal waters, said Carey Smith, harbor master at Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County and president of the state Boating Safety Officers Association.

"We can't teach common sense," Smith said. "We need to make people aware." His association will "make sure we get legislation passed. We don't like consoling families" of accident victims.

"We need education," said Lenora Clark, a Discovery Bay resident and member of the state Boating and Waterways Commission. "The devil is in the details. But I'm hoping it doesn't become another bureaucracy."

California is one of 13 states that do not mandate any boater training. It routinely ranks first or second nationally in annual recreational boating deaths, said Bill Gossard, the National Transportation Safety Board's top recreational boating expert.

"This is a travesty. I am appalled by it and it is appalling California hasn't done it. It is a travesty, you can all just mumble about it, but it is a travesty," Gossard said.

Former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill in 1999 that would have required boat operators to take training. Gossard said that veto cost more than 100 lives.

If the boating community is in agreement that boaters need education, the specifics of any program are far from decided.

One idea is "a written test in conjunction with onboard training," said Kevin O'Leary, who runs a Pleasant Hill-based boater training service. Others said a large bureaucracy would only discourage people from being trained or boating altogether.

Clark suggested that once boaters are trained, an annotation on their driver's licenses -- similar to the way a certification to drive a motorcycle is noted -- could be used to show their boating qualification.

There were also questions about whether veteran boaters should be exempt from any requirement. O'Leary, who trains boaters, said he thought there should be no exemptions.

"New and inexperienced boaters come in all ages," he said.

Thomas Peele is a Times investigative reporter. Reach him at 925-977-8463 or tpeele@cctimes.com.