Paddlers eyeing threat of increased boating regulations warily

In the last few years, the Coast Guard and boat administrators across America have increasingly been pushing for regulation of paddlesports, including mandating PFD wear and requiring all paddlers to register their boats. While the initial outcry from the paddlesports industry against this type of legislation has been as thunderous as a class V rapid, support for registration requirements and mandated PFD wear is also beginning to surface.
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In the last few years, the Coast Guard and boat administrators across America have increasingly been pushing for regulation of paddlesports, including mandating PFD wear and requiring all paddlers to register their boats. While the initial outcry from the paddlesports industry against this type of legislation has been as thunderous as a class V rapid, support for registration requirements and mandated PFD wear is also beginning to surface.  

Paddling Toward Legislation
According to the American Canoe Association's (ACA) website, www.acanet.org: "Canoe and kayak registration seems to be largely driven by the realization that there are a significant number of them in operation. State boating agencies associate those large numbers with revenue potential and the need and demand for services such as law enforcement and rescue personnel."

The National Recreational Boating Survey reported in 2002 that canoes were the second most-operated boat, just behind the open motorboat. Numbers from the Outdoor Industry Association show that canoeing participation grew 32.9 percent to 25.9 million between 1998 and 2003 and that kayaking participation grew 150 percent to 11.4 million in the same period.

"The growth rate of fatalities has not grown with the participation," Pam Dillon, executive director of the ACA, said. "We've got the highest level of participation in the history of the United States. We've got more in the last three years than ever before. It's not surprising that fatalities have increased, but it's not matched."

U.S. Coast Guard -- www.uscgboating.org -- statistics show that between 1996 and 2001, on average, fatalities were at 10.9 percent. In 2000, 103 people died in kayak or canoe accidents; in 2001, there were 93 fatalities and in 2002, 78 fatalities.

"Over the last couple of years it's almost reached a fever pitch with people saying we have to do something," Dillon said. "That peak in 2000 caused the proverbial, you know, to hit the fan. It was tracking upward and it's going down now, but we're still on the hot seat."

Gordon Black, ACA's director of safety education and instruction, pointed to the lack of PFD wear as a key issue. "The greatest danger in paddlesports is drowning," he said. "Wearing life jackets would reduce those deaths. They've determined the most effective way to get people to wear PFDs is to mandate it by law. They believe that much like seatbelts and helmets, you have to educate the public. That education costs a lot of money. There's a perception that paddlers are not paying their share because they don't have to register their boats."

It appears rescues of paddlers in trouble are ringing up expenses and attention that are driving increased calls for legislative action.

"Many people are casual boaters who haven't taken classes or don't have the proper equipment and may not know the rules of the road on the water," Dillon said. "Ultimately, when one of them gets in trouble and a local rescue agency goes out and helps them, they're looking at some of these searches and the states are saying, 'These people are everywhere and it's exploding and we don't have a handle on it.'"

Gail, who declined to give her last name, works as a volunteer with the Coast Guard Auxiliary in San Francisco, which teaches safe boating classes and performs boating patrols and free safety inspections.

"As a member of the public, I am involved in search and rescue, and it's hard to know which kayak you're looking for without a registration number," she said. "The state spends millions of dollars in the Delta and elsewhere and every registered vessel contributes to that fund and kayakers and sail boards and canoeists don't."

The cost of education and rescue of paddlers is not the only impetus behind the call for registration.

"(The Coast Guard and boat law administrators) want to know the numbers of boats out there, so that they can track participation and accidents better," Dillon said. "Ohio requires registration and they know that 12 percent of the boats in the state are canoes and kayaks."

The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) --www.nasbla.org -- says in its model act for boat registration: "Since the majority of the states do not require the numbering of non-powered vessels, there is no accurate data available to determine what percentage of the boating accidents or deaths occur from the operation of non-powered vessels, such as canoes, kayaks, etc."

Gail from the Coast Guard Auxiliary wondered what paddlers do if their boat is stolen. "A unit being stolen, how do you recognize that particular vessel?" she said.

Legislation Already in Place
According to NASBLA's Reference Guide to State Boating Laws, 24 states require registration of non-powered boats, 24 states require numbering of non-powered boats, 16 states require titling and eight states require boaters pay a user fee. Some states' requirements contain exemptions for various watercraft, like lifeboats or canoes owned by non-profits, and no state's requirements are alike. In fact, which department handles boating administration also varies from state-to-state.

Since sailboats, sailboards and rowboats are all considered non-powered vessels, not all of those 24 states require registration of canoes and kayaks. Sixteen states, including Alabama, Colorado, Michigan and Ohio, require canoes and kayaks to be registered or numbered.
 
In Ohio, for example, paddlers must pay $5 every year for each boat, and then display two registration tags on the boat as well as carry an original registration certificate on board the boat.

According to Chris Mitchell, executive director of the Trade Association of Paddle Sports (TAPS) -- www.gopaddle.org -- eight states, including Connecticut and Maine, are currently considering boat registration legislation.

Registration Pros and Cons
While it might seem surprising to many in the paddling community, quite a few industry folks we spoke with said that they wouldn't mind paying for registration IF they knew their boat registration fees would go to paddling-specific improvements.

"I'm not terribly interested in paying for a registration fee unless I know the paddlers are going to see a benefit," Black said. "I don't need a concrete boat ramp. I don't need law enforcement. I can't go fast enough to damage someone else. Why should I pay for those things?"

Dillon agreed that if states are going to impose regulation requirements, they need to provide the paddling community with an assurance that the money will be used to support things like access and safety for paddlers.

"Some states are willing to do that and some are saying you're already using these services," she said. "It's a different dialogue state to state, but right now the states that have already imposed a registration have different responses to how the money is used."

Dillon cites Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Ohio as examples.

"Pennsylvanian paddlers who use state access points have to be registered or have a permit to launch," she said. "If you don't use state facilities, including parking lots, then you don't have to pay. They've used some of the money to establish a system of water trails. Minnesota has a huge number of paddlers. Money from them goes to conserving the Boundary Waters area and education. Ohio has had registration requirements for 30 years. The state has a large number of programs, like education, access and grants for the non-powered community. They provide school systems and non-profits with funding to teach paddling programs."

In Ohio, the annual $5 from paddlers, "Theoretically, must be used for access, ramps, parking, law enforcement, safety and rescue, education efforts, signage, etc.," Black said.

Darren Bush, co-owner of Rutabaga in Madison, Wis., said he wouldn't mind paying more, "If the money goes to accessible put-ins or improving river banks. As long as the money is put toward paddling, then I think it's great. I don't think that's going to happen, though."

Some paddlers are angry about registration because of the aesthetics of a big row of numbers on the bow of their boat, according to Mitchell of TAPS.

"People get angry when they're told to put a bunch of 4-inch letters and numbers on the beautiful new boat they just bought," he said.

Bush told us he completely empathizes with boat owners unhappy about messing up a boat's look.

"I always end up buying Minnesota registration, which requires a 3-inch by 3-inch sticker on the bow and it doesn't bother me," he said. "But Iowa makes you put big numbers on and it's hideous. I would rather have no sticker."

NASBLA has developed a model act for states to use in developing registration requirements -- though this act does not cover specifics such as standardizing registration decal sizing or placement. In the act, the NASBLA does cite the positive aspects of registration like tracking stolen boats, generating money for perks like route maps for paddlers.

"It's easier to inform the canoeist, etc. of law changes, i.e. PFD requirements if the vessels are numbered and a mailing list can be made available," the model act states.

As for disadvantages or challenges facing registration of kayaks and canoes, NASBLA asserted that there is difficulty in affixing the state assigned number and decal to certain hull material. NASBLA also pointed out, "Many canoes and kayaks are purchased at carport sales or have been abandoned making registration and titling difficult because of the lack of a clear chain of ownership."
 
Impact on the Industry
There are those in the paddling industry who assert that charging people for the pleasure of paddling could have a serious negative impact on participation numbers. Others believe that a few extra bucks charged each year won't deter folks from paddling one bit once they've purchased a boat.

"I have a lot of boats," Black said. "My whole family paddles. I might have over 30 boats, and if I paid $5 a year for each of them, that's a lot of money. Is it fair for me to pay so much money?"

According to Mitchell of TAPS, real canoe or kayak enthusiasts won't mind the extra fee.

"They'll grumble, but I don't think it will have a big impact if they're told that access will improve, he said."

Added Bush of Rutabaga, "When you look at the cost of the boat, a little extra money is not going to be prohibitive. If the money is going to do something good, people won't object."

Mitchell said he does feel that government legislation like registration is the "biggest threat to the sales success of the paddlesports industry" because "casual boaters will say, 'Well, we'll just try something else.'"

Matt Menashes, the executive director of the Professional Paddlesports Association (PPA) -- www.propaddle.com -- says although the financial impact of registration has not been studied well, he feels that it could impede the sale of boats.

"It would have a significant impact on the rental industry," he said. "We have rental companies with more than 500 or 1,000 boats and it would force some of them out of business. It would also require additional training of employees because they would have to know the registration process."

Dillon of ACA said she's concerned about anything that could be a hindrance in the industry. "I don't want barriers to participation," she said. "But we are all just guessing that the impact would be some type of negative. I'm not sure about that. When mandatory education came in for the power boating industry, businesses screamed that it was going to kill them. But it didn't. It just informed people about what they needed and I think the industry views it as a positive thing. People are informed and making better product choices. I don't know if that same thing would translate to the paddling community. I don't know that it would be a total negative, but I would not want it to appear that the industry isn't concerned."

What Can the Industry Do?
The question is not whether the industry is concerned, but what can people do about their concerns?

Dillon said communication is essential.

"We've been trying to address the outrage and say let's work together to get the common paddlesports messages out there," she said. "We're trying to offer some different alternatives to registering boats. It hasn't been productive for us to say to administrators, 'No, you guys are wrong.' We try to understand them and make them aware of training programs and studies, so they can make better choices. We talk about not wanting to put barriers up and make sure they do everything possible before undue regulations."

Menashes said that an efficient way to talk to boating law administrators would be to have a liaison in state that would talk directly with associations like the PPA.

"We need an open dialogue," he said.

It seems that a consensus exists about the need to be proactive.

"People can't just resist legislation," Mitchell said. "If we could get all 3,000 paddlesports entities together, we could leverage change. But people don't want to share information. They think it's all competition, but competition is the greatest thing you can have. We're not a mature industry yet and it's going to take a big adversary, like legislation, to unite us."

Black suggested that people get involved with groups, like the ACA and PPA, which have an existing dialogue with administrators.

"I think that we would be so much better and we probably could address in a positive way the safety concerns if we were all working and unified," Dillon said. "I hear so often from regulators that they want to see that there is activity and people working together. They don't see anything happening. The industry would be well served to rally around this issue. The PPA has made notable efforts to pull the industry together. The industry has recognized that they've done themselves a disservice by not coming together."

According to Black, the industry coming together has to mean more than just becoming involved in trade associations.

"Manufacturers need to include safety information with their products," he said. "We've been trying to work with them and many companies won't do it, even if it's offered for free or it only costs a few pennies. Even a small amount cuts directly into profit margin. There's been some serious resistance. It's easy sometimes to consider the profit as the end all to be all, and if that's going to be the position, then there will be more intrusive government regulation."

Dillon points out a specific example of this with a safety video the ACA developed two years ago with a grant from the Coast Guard.

"It was produced solely for manufacturers," she said. "We told them, here's the product to show people how to get started safely. All you have to do is provide it to customers. Copy them and put them in boats or distribute however you want to. We're giving this to you as a common effort for education. Only one manufacturer, WaterMark, has picked up on it. They've only just started to put them in new boats being sold. They took the video and added their own branding to talk about their specific line of boats."

Educating paddlers, according to many in the industry, is the key to increasing safety.

"Promoting safety will help the viability of this industry," Mitchell said. "If we don't do something to increase safety, legislation will happen."
 
"The more we can inform the public through safety awareness, that's doing our part," Dillon said.

Mitchell believes that one way to educate is for manufacturers to include information in their boats about appropriate use.

"They should include an ID that says something like, 'for use in calm, protected waters' or whatever the boat is made for," he said. "Too often, people purchase a product that's inappropriate for how they want to use it."

Dillon agreed that would be a great way to start, but in some cases a simple sticker may not be enough.

"There are so many different skills and different boats, education is always important," she said. "People need skill-specific training, insight and practice. You're not going to learn everything from a sticker or a video. We should be encouraging people to take classes. We're doing people a disservice by not informing them that classes are available."

In addition to addressing the safety initiatives, Dillon said that the industry needs to put their money where their mouth is.Â

"We need more support for the safety initiatives put forward by the ACA and PPA and others," she said. "We've all addressed the fact that the industry doesn't support the safety initiatives financially. Everyone is concerned and gives it lip service, but we need some financial backing and that's hard to get. Coming together and agreeing on a plan would leap us forward very dramatically."
 
Added Menashes, "Developing a consensus in the industry is essential. Consensus is always difficult, but we have to educate consumers so they make informed decisions. The most important person in this issue is the person who paddles."

SNEWS® View: While we are very happy to see that the paddlesports industry has arrived at consensus even if only to decide that the industry needs to come to a consensus, it is high time for the industry to paddle together out of the eddy and into the river's flow. Legislators and regulators must begin hearing a very clear and unified voice from the waterfront. Certainly trade associations have made important steps to begin the communication process, but that is only a beginning and absolutely will not be enough to satisfy government entities bent on collecting registration fees and imposing rules and regs for paddlers. If the industry can come together and decide on rules and guidelines that make sense to them, and police themselves, then this question of legislation won't become such a big deal. To draw a parallel, not so very long ago the scuba diving industry also confronted the threat of potential legislation and regulation its industry members didn't want. In the face of government intervention, the diving industry came together and created rules that made sense for their businesses and customers and mollified the regulators. Of course, the challenge will be in speaking as one voice -- something that the paddlesports industry hasn't proven very adept at yet.

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