You don't need a license to operate a recreational powerboat in California. You don't need to take a course or pass a test. All you need is a waterway and proof that you're 16 years old (or, gulp, 12 if accompanied by an adult).
That thought gives Lt. Doug Powell pause now that the summer boating season has arrived on the Delta. He's worked 10 of his 13 years in the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office as a deputy with the Marine Services Unit, and he knows what to expect.
Some powerboaters will travel at reckless speeds. Some will cross over into the wrong side of the channel. Water skiers will be pulled into rocks on the shoreline. Personal watercraft will be involved in collisions.
Powell's unit worked 28 vessel accidents in 2011, issued 437 citations and made 43 arrests. A great many of them were preventable, except for the lack of one thing.
"Education," he said. "There are other contributing factors, such as DUIs, but that's not the major cause of accidents. It's lack of education -- knowing what to do and what not to do out on the waterways."
He recalled the speedboat that crossed another's tow line and flipped over when the rope became wrapped around its propeller. There was a Jet Ski fatality in Discovery Bay 2009 when a careless driver turned in front of an oncoming vessel. More recently, a boat burst into flames, apparently just after refueling.
"If you don't properly ventilate during and after your
The California State Sheriffs' Association and the Recreational Boaters of America have lobbied for years for mandatory education for boat owners, but the effort has fallen on deaf ears of legislators who happily author hundreds of less consequential bills.
"It seems ludicrous that someone can operate a boat that can go in excess of 50 miles an hour and not have to have boater education," Powell said.
At the bare minimum, he said, boaters need to understand some basic rules:
Powell said he's aware of three accidents on the Delta already this month, and summer has barely begun. One involved an improperly secured ski chair that flipped out of the boat, hit the water and flipped back in, severely cutting two passengers.
"That was a freak accident," he said. "Those are going to happen."
More haunting are the clearly preventable tragedies, one of which he remembers far too well.
"It was a little girl we lost in Discovery Bay," he said. "She was riding on the back of a boat on the swimstep, and she was overcome by carbon monoxide. She fell in the water and drowned. I carried that little girl off in a body bag. I'll never forget that."
There is no reason to fear the water. There is every reason to respect it and the rules of the waterway.
"When you're the boat captain," Powell said, "it's your responsibility to see that everyone comes home safe."
You can begin by programming the number for Marines Services into your cellphone (925-646-2441). If you run into trouble, give Lt. Powell a call.
Nothing you report will surprise him. After 10 years, he's seen it all.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org