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When you travel around the water as much as I do, you see a lot of things ... a lot of things that make you wonder how some people survive being boat owners.

Off Season is often the time of travel and outdoor shows and a time to be thinking about buying a new boat or first boat.

For many, it is a time when their dreams of becoming a boat owner are fulfilled. For a few of them, it is the beginning of a nightmare. However, it is a nightmare that can not be ended by awakening.

It is not difficult to become a boat owner. All that you need is money or credit and you can buy anything from a 14-foot car-topper to a 60-foot motor yacht. There is no requirement that the buyer know anything about operating a piece of equipment that could be hazardous to the health of himself and other people.

As an example of just how hazardous boating can be, I just have to think back a few summers. A family of three became the proud owners of one of those sleek motor boats that will cruise along at 60 miles and hour. Three days later the entire family was dead. The boat was destroyed in an unexplained accident.

I did not know the family involved in this tragedy, but they were relatives to an acquaintance of mine. He told me that this fast boat was the first that they had ever owned.

Maybe this accident was not related to inexperience. Accidents happen to even the most experienced watermen. All witnesses to the accident are dead. Therefore, one can only guess that a slower boat would have prevented the accident.

A fishing captain that I know hit a submerged piling floating in the water and claims his planked hull boat was sitting on the bottom in about 14 seconds. Fortunately, he was near a sand bar and was able to reach it before the 40 footer sank. The captain's knowledge of the bay made the salvaging of his boat a much easier and less expensive task. Incidently, this old fishing boat would plow water at a little more than 10 knots.

Many new boat owners start out with small boats and gradually work their way up to their ultimate size. Generally speaking, this is a good practice. However, small does not necessarily mean safe.

Several years ago, I noticed two people fishing in a 14-foot car-topper. I noted that there was only about five inches of free board and remarked to my fishing companion that there was an accident looking for a place to happen.

When we returned from fishing that evening, we learned that it happened. The boat capsized and both occupants, a father and son, drowned. Neither could swim and they were dumped in the water so fast that they could not grab the life preservers that they were not wearing.

Like automobiles, boats present an element of danger when being operated.

Unlike automobile drivers, boat operators in many states are not required to demonstrate any skills or knowledge of their equipment before operating it.

Sometime in the future, there will probably be some kind of testing and licensing of boat operators in all states. The increasing number of pleasure boats on our waterways will make it a necessity. The time might be right now, but I am not so sure. I don't think it would be a popular regulation at this time. But boater safety classes are being offered in more states all the time and are required for some young boaters in some states now.

Until the time a boat operating license becomes a reality, the responsibility of safe navigation lies with each and every boat owner.

To the experienced boat operator, safe boating is just a matter of common sense. For the novice, who has no idea what side of buoy he should be on or any of the other basic rules of the road, common sense should start before he puts the boat in the water the first time.

A Power Squadron course in navigation is the ideal course of action for the prospective boat owner. In practice, however, many buy their boats and take the courses while running the boats. Fortunately, most survive.

An alternative to a Power Squadron course is to obtain and study literature on navigation from the Coast Guard.

From experience I know that one of the longest periods of time is that between buying a boat and getting it on the water. Therefore, I can understand how some get themselves into some unbelievable predicaments.

I have seen trailers jack knifed in a launching ramp, boats caught high and dry on flats at low tide, and new boats sink because the drain plug was not put in place. Inexperience shows in these situations and sometimes they are funny if they are not happening to you.

It is a good idea to take an experienced boat handler along the first few times you take your boat out. They can keep you out of a lot of trouble.

There was one instance when I wished I had an experienced hand along. I was asked to move a small cabin cruiser from one marina to another. Having grown up on the water around boats, this seemed like a very simple task. It was until I tried to back the boat into the slip. I learned that inboards do not steer very straight in reverse.

When you are wandering among the new boats on exhibit at the shows this winter, keep in mind that all your days afloat may not be pure pleasure. And they can be pure agony.

Uploaded: 2/21/2004