Boating rules fail to float

We don’t take boating safety seriously enough in this country, and so boat pilots, their passengers and other water users are put in danger.

We don’t take boating safety seriously enough in this country, and so boat pilots, their passengers and other water users are put in danger.

This is the first full year — and the first summer season — that all operators of powered pleasure craft must carry a Pleasure Craft Operator Card in Canada (unless you are visiting from another nation, in which case you can play with impunity on our waters for 45 days without a card).

For just $49.95 (plus GST), you can have a Pleasure Craft Operator Card — provided you can correctly answer 27 of the 36 multiple-choice questions on the exam. Failure is not an option — you can retry for free as often as you need to.

The simplest way to obtain the lifetime card is online, where any number of people, manuals, websites and other resource materials can be in the background helping you achieve a 75 per cent score.

There is no pilot competency test: you don’t have to demonstrate that you are physically able to manoeuvre a boat. You simply have to answer 27 questions correctly.

And then you can pilot any powered pleasure watercraft. The category is pretty inclusive: recreational boats, personal crafts, sailing vessels or any boat with any size motor. In many cases, these are craft that require great skill to operate, dexterity and foresight, a maturity of decision-making, and always an acute respect for water and safety. The Pleasure Craft Operator Card doesn’t take these distinctions into account.

According to the Canada Safety Council, 10 million Canadians are boaters. The boating industry says that as many as six million Canadians own a boat and as many as 200 will die in the water (in the year 2000, statistics showed a decrease to 150 deaths, and there are indications of a downward trend). Another 6,000 people will suffer non-fatal injuries while boating.

In a country where lakes, rivers and other waterways account for nine per cent of the total area (plus access to oceans on three sides), it is not surprising that boating is the primary cause of drowning in Canada. The Canada Safety Council says that in 2000, about one-third of all water-related deaths occurred when boating.

The risks, on the water, are significant.

Yet for a mere $50 and an online test, Canadians are entitled to take all kinds of risks, and risk the lives of others.

Few Canadians would advocate that we outlaw pleasure boating. It is a wonderful part of living in this country: it offers adventure, discovery, tranquility, relief from the heat, and simple fun. And we have far too few days when such pleasures can be enjoyed; the snow comes too soon every fall (and often lasts too long in the spring).

And it is big business: the Canadian pleasure boating industry generates about $26.8 billion (2006 figures) in business a year through jobs, sales, travel, repairs, taxes, tourism revenues and consumer spending. Ten per cent of national tourism is related to boating.

Certainly the Pleasure Craft Operator Card is a step in the right direction. It provides a framework for safety and a starting point for policing and monitoring watercraft safety. It is a valuable tool for educating the boating public about the dangers on the water.

But the system is far too lax, and the potential is far too grave. The $250 fine for not having an operator card seems slight, and the fact that a Pleasure Craft Operator Card cannot be revoked or suspended is disconcerting.

Between 85 and 90 per cent of all Canadian boating deaths occurred because the victims were not wearing a life-jacket (the law states, generally, that it is only required that enough personal flotation devices be available for each passenger).

If we’re not able to hammer home the necessity of wearing a life-jacket, how can we possibly assume that every boat pilot is competent?

The operator card should be the first step in a graduated program that will eventually bring the introduction of full licensing and competency tests.

Until that happens, the potential for tragedy on the water is far too great.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.