By Dudley Dawson, YI editor-at-large
Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, at the successful conclusion of a significant naval battle on Lake Erie during the War of 1812, sent a report to his superiors. “We have met the enemy,” he said, “and they are ours.” On the first Earth Day in 1970, editorial cartoonist Walt Kelly paraphrased him, with Kelly’s possum Pogo surveying the trash that polluted his swamp and noting, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Unfortunately, there are increasing signs that we, too, as boating and yachting enthusiasts, are in danger of becoming our own enemy.
What yacht owner or captain has not been frustrated by a kayak or dinghy or stand-up paddleboard cutting across his bow, or a personal watercraft flying across his wake, too close for comfort or safety? PWC, in particular, are often considered waterborne mosquitoes, to the point of being banned in some areas.
The problem, though, is not limited to these little water toys. Everything is relative, so for large commercial vessels, yachts themselves are the water toys, and it’s important that we understand that fact. To the captain of a tour boat with 600 souls aboard, a hotdogging sportfisherman is just as annoying and just as dangerous as that wake-jumping PWC is to us. For a tug captain struggling to maintain steerage around a tight river bend with a raft of barges, the captain of a slow passagemaker that can’t wait to pass is a threat. And the superyacht captain who cuts it close across the bow of a supertanker is a fool.
Unfortunately, such individuals have tarnished the image of the entire recreational boating family. We should be keenly aware that such bad behavior has not gone unnoticed by those who may not have our best interests at heart. While the U.S. Coast Guard has long been our friend, it is now part of the Department of Homeland Security. The USCG’s once-benign relationship with recreational boating, which includes everything from dinghies to superyachts, has sadly been influenced by the guys in dark suits.
A few years ago, I attended an invitation-only “Small Craft Security Summit” sponsored by DHS. The secretary himself was quite clear that in a post-9/11 environment, the department considered small craft—and recreational vessels in particular—to be inherent threats to national security. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed at the summit and the more draconian measures were removed from consideration, at least temporarily.
Now, the Passenger Vessel Association, representing a nationwide amalgam of dinner cruise boats, ferries and tour boats, has requested that the National Transportation Safety Board investigate the danger that recreational craft pose to their vessels and passengers. Operators of inland and coastal waterway commercial vessels, including tugs and barges, tankers and cargo ships, have joined them. As a result of this combined effort, the NTSB has agreed to look into the situation. Believe me, a consortium of the DHS, USCG and NTSB probing deeply into our leisure pastime of choice is not a good thing.
As individuals and as a group, we can meet the threat of increased scrutiny by being proactive, cleaning up our act and refusing to tolerate those among us who won’t. Otherwise, it’s possible that we will face additional regulation and restrictions, if not outright bans. We’re already living with them in Miami’s Government Cut and similar areas where patrol boats are quick to intercept wayward boaters. If we aren’t careful, we could see impacts in many more areas. We don’t want to confront the enemy and find it is us.