Saturday, March 11, 2017

Safely Sharing Waterways

Recently, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report on boater safety, including the challenges in sharing waterways between commercial traffic, recreational boats (motors and sails) and, of course, paddle craft.

The entire thing is quite a good read. You can find a good summary here, and the full report in PDF form here. Fellow paddler and NYC blogger Frogma has a post up about a recent experience she had with a group in low visibility, sharing the waterways; nothing terrible happened. There's no reason these waters can't be shared.

There is a lot to unpack from the report and its summary. Setting aside the typo of "waived" for "waved" early in the document, I thought I'd write up what I see in what they came up with. What's in italics in this post is lifted directly from the report.

There are three organizations that are referred to throughout the document, sometimes by name, sometimes by acronym. The USCG is the United States Coast Guard; NASBLA is the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators; NWSC is the National Water Safety Congress.

Who are these people?

Well, the Coast Guard is the Coast Guard; they're a branch of the American military that falls under Homeland Security. My brother was an active USCG member and is finishing up as a reservist with the rank of chief; their main role is law enforcement and SAR (Search And Rescue). Also, icebreaking.

NASBLA is an association of US state boating agencies. They have a lot of standards, and good information, but no enforcement capability; that's the realm of the individual states.

NWSC is a non-profit, formed in 1951, to promote safe recreational use of our waterways. That's straight from their website.

The report itself opens dramatically, recounting the day last summer (2016) when a NY Waterways ferry collided with a couple of kayakers, part of a larger group, on a trip out of Pier 84 in Manhattan; this is accompanied by a screenshot from a "bridgecam" showing the kayakers and the sun glare conditions on the water.

However, that is all you will hear about that story, and pretty much all you will hear about paddling in New York City. Nothing else in this report addresses or references that incident or any findings about it.

Early in the summary, the report states:

. . .all recreational vessel operators need to attain a minimum level of boating safety education to mitigate risk. In addition, the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] believes the U.S. Coast Guard should require recreational boaters on US navigable waterways to demonstrate completion of an instructional course meeting the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators or equivalent standards.

OK, I agree with this, in principle at least. Anyone operating on US waterways should know what they're doing. But, what would that mean? Here, they're saying the Coast Guard should require boaters to demonstrate that they have taken a class the meets standards set by NASBLA, or something like that.

Except, think through what this means organizationally. This means that first NASBLA has to create standards, and then get agencies to offer those classes. Not only that, but they have to ensure those classes actually meet those standards (or, is it the Coast Guard's job - it isn't clear). And, on top of all of that, the report tasks the Coast Guard with making sure mariners have taken one of these classes. Madam, might I see your boating safety diploma?

Although the number of registered recreational vessels has decreased over the last decade, the reduction is not reflective of the trend in the total number of vessels on the waterways. In fact, the number of canoers, kayakers, and standup paddleboarders (SUP) increased by 21.9 percent between 2008 and 2014 (see Appendix A), with the vast majority of their vessels being unregistered. Consequently, the number of interactions between these diverse vessels has risen, thereby increasing the safety risk, especially where confined waterways limit the ability of vessels to maneuver safely.

Registration of paddlecraft would bring a very different dynamic to the industry. For one thing, unlike motor or sail boats, you don't need a lot of training to get started - which is arguably one of the concerns in the first place.

All that being said, I can't help but believe that disparate sets of data are being used to paint a picture of irresponsible paddlers clogging our nation's navigable arteries. They're saying that 1) there are more paddlecraft out there, but also 2) they aren't registered, so therefor 3) there must be a lot more unregistered paddlers out there!

Maybe this is true. But, even the industry is uncertain about growth. Is it mostly recreational boats? Sea kayaks? Whitewater boats? How much of the growth in paddlesport is in areas defined as shared waterways? How many of these known-to-be-unknown paddlecraft are on shared waterways, as opposed to a lake or a pond?

The safety risk is exacerbated not only by the diversity of waterway users but also by differences in their experience, marine knowledge, and boat-handling skills.

Holy shizzlesnacks, that is a true statement. And here, we start to get to the heart of the problem. Most of the paddlers I know have at least enough experience to know what they should and shouldn't do, and have basic knowledge of the "rules of the road", or COLREGS. 

On the other hand, anyone can buy a boat at Wal-Mart and put in at Liberty State Park or Inwood and start paddling in a commercial shipping zone. I have seen people on the water in vessels that are clearly not meant for the conditions here, paddled by people who do not demonstrate even minimal knowledge or ability. And if you're a commercial operator, you don't know. You can't tell who's and expert and who's not.

According to a Coast Guard estimate, only 28 percent of motorized recreational vessel operators were required by state laws to complete a boating safety course or pass an examination of boating safety knowledge in 2015. 

Adding additional risk, recreational vessel operators may not realize that their vessels’ small sizes and nonmetal construction materials make both visual and radar detection more difficult. An officer in charge of the navigation watch on a large cargo or passenger ship positioned 100 feet or more above the water’s surface will be challenged to see from the bridge window or detect by radar a paddleboard whose operator is maneuvering in close proximity to the larger vessel.

These are two very important facts. On the first, the challenge is the disparity between regulations in the several states, in particular when they share waters - for example, New York and New Jersey on the Hudson River. On the second, I am of the opinion that this needs to be communicated more. Captains are not necessarily being jerks when they can't see you. They can't always see something as small as a kayak or paddleboard. We are hard to see, even with our bright colors, reflective tape, and use of radios.

This is where I'm glad to say the report includes non-paddle craft as well; the problem of sharing waterways is not limited to human-powered vessels.

Open motorboats accounted for the highest number of injuries and fatalities (1,661), followed by personal watercraft (656), cabin motorboats (305), canoes and kayaks (230), and pontoon boats (139). A comparison with Coast Guard recreational vessel accident data from 2011 showed similar trends. 

In contrast, very few operators of non-motorized recreational vessels are required to be licensed or demonstrate knowledge of the navigation rules, and many operators of motorized recreational vessels are exempt from these requirements as well. You might make the argument that despite the increase in unregistered paddlers, there hasn't been an excessive increase in paddlers involved in injuries and fatalities.

The degree of risk overall appears to be influenced largely by a lack of awareness or understanding of the navigation rules among a large portion of recreational boat operators and by their lack of adequate boating knowledge and skills.

Here is the only other notable mention of August's accident in New York City:

The tour operator involved in the August 2016 New York City accident was unaware of the practice that counterparts in Chicago employed: the use of radios by kayak tour guides to communicate with commercial vessels. NTSB believes using radios is a practice that can enhance safety, and practices such as these should be shared among HSCs (Harbor Safety Committees) so that stakeholders can learn about them and implement them as appropriate.

NTSB concludes that all recreational vessel operators need to attain a minimum level of boating safety education to mitigate the various risks associated with the type of vessel being operated. 

[Emphasis mine]

Yes. Amen to radios, with the caveat that they are not 100% effective. Paddlers are low to the water, and I have heard directly from commercial skippers that they do not always have the ability to reply to every call, especially when completing a complex maneuver. It's still useful to announce a securite, and even more useful to listen to the other traffic around you. 

And, I agree that all recreational vessel operators need to attain a minimum level of boating safety education. It's hard not to. It's a common sense idea.

However, this brings us back to the gaping hole at in the center of this report: there is no clear definition of who is responsible for defining or maintaining these standards, nor for enforcing them, nor who is responsible when they are violated. 


  1. Harbor safety committees can substantively improve safety between commercial and recreational vessels if risks are regularly identified, practices are developed and implemented to mitigate these risks, and these practices are shared with stakeholders and other harbor safety committees. 
  2. All recreational vessel operators need to attain a minimum level of boating safety education to mitigate the various risks associated with the type of vessel being operated. 
  3. The Coast Guard should renew its efforts to seek legislative authority to require recreational boaters on waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to obtain education that meets National Association of State Boating Law Administrators or equivalent standards. 
  4. A Guide to Multiple Use Waterway Management should be reviewed and updated at regular intervals.
I hate to pick nits, because I agree with so much of what is said in this report but:

  1. Yes, they can. But how many will, and who would make sure that they do?
  2. Yes. Absolutely. But again, who defines that, and then makes it a standard?
  3. Just to be clear, the report is saying that the Coast Guard should ask congress to let them enforce rules created by an interstate consortium that in itself has no enforcement powers.
  4. Yes. Whatever this document is should be reviewed and updated. But, at the risk of sounding like an owl . . . .Who? Who?
As a result of this report, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following safety recommendations 

To the US Coast Guard: 

  1. Establish a process whereby, at regular intervals, all harbor safety committees identify the safety risks posed by the interaction of commercial and recreational vessels in their respective geographic areas; where necessary, develop and implement practices to mitigate those risks; and share successful practices among all harbor safety committees. (M-17-1). 
  2. Seek statutory authority that requires all recreational boat operators on waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to demonstrate completion of an instructional course or an equivalent that meets the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators standards. (M-17-2). 
  3. Work with the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and the National Water Safety Congress to review and update A Guide to Multiple Use Waterway Management at regular intervals. (M-17-3).
To the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators: 
  1. Work with the National Water Safety Congress and the US Coast Guard to review and update A Guide to Multiple Use Waterway Management at regular intervals. (M-17-4) To the National Water Safety Congress: 5. Work with the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and the US Coast Guard to review and update A Guide to Multiple Use Waterway Management at regular intervals. (M-17-5).
At the end, the report basically puts the onus on the Coast Guard - already one of the most underfunded military or police organizations in the United States - to work with an interstate consortium as well as numerous "harbor Safety Committees", the latter of which may or may not be well-defined. They're all supposed to keep this document updated, and to enforce not only the rules, but that everyone on shared waterways has taken an approved course.

Now, I love me some regulation of industry, but I do wonder how this would work, especially in a time when deregulation and smaller government are coming into vogue.

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