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New California Law Requires Boating Licenses, Except For Renters

Calvin Pedroli takes his motor boat out from the San Diego Yacht Club with hi...

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Above: Calvin Pedroli takes his motor boat out from the San Diego Yacht Club with his friend Parker Roberts, June 30, 2017.

Right now, almost anyone in California can hop on a boat and drive away without any training or a license.

That will change this January when a new law goes into effect requiring boaters to pass a written test and get a California Boater Card. But the law leaves out a big group―boat renters, who often have the least boating experience.

Among the first group of people to be affected by the new law is 17-year-old Calvin Pedroli, who lives in La Jolla and likes to take his small motor boat out from the San Diego Yacht Club with his friends.

California Boater Card Requirements Timeline

2018: Age 20 or younger

2019: 25 or younger

2020: 35 or younger

2021: 40 or younger

2022: 45 or younger

2023: 50 or younger

2024: 60 or younger

2025: Everyone

This January, the law will require everyone under 20 who drives a boat with a motor to get a license. The law will gradually phase in until 2025, when everyone will need a license.

Pedroli has been driving boats since he was a kid, much longer than he has been able to drive, and feels confident on the water.

"It's definitely different than driving a car because you have to think about drift, because when you turn the boat's going to slide a lot," he said. "Also you have to think about wind, because that's going to move you, and current."

California is one of just five states―besides Alaska, Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming―that currently does not require any license to boat, though some states only have requirements for people under 18, according to the American Boating Association.

Last year, California had more boating accidents than any other state besides Florida. That is likely in part because the state has the biggest coastline in the county and is among the top five states for number of registered boats, according to data from the U.S. Coast Guard.

According to the Coast Guard, 77 percent of deaths last year occurred on boats where the operator did not receive any boating safety instruction.

To get the California Boaters Card, applicants will have to take a safety course, either online or in person, and pass a written test. (Sample question: "Which of the following best describes 'capsizing'?" Answer: "Turning of a vessel on its side or upside down.")

Though the cards are required for people under 20 at the start of the new year, the state has not yet set up the system to apply for them, or decided on how much they will cost. That will come this fall, said Denise Peterson, California's Division of Boating and Waterways boating safety and education manager. She added a card will not likely cost more than $10.

"One of the top two reasons for accidents in California is lack of education," she said. "So more education is never a bad thing. Some people I talk to can't believe you can go purchase a boat without any training."

On a recent Saturday morning at the Chula Vista Marina, a group of boating students gathered for just that kind of training. They were taking "About Boating Safely," a day long class with a test at the end that would qualify them for their boating card.

The teacher, Bill Andersen, is with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and said he thinks the licenses will help with safety.

"If you want to drive a car, you have to have classroom instruction and take a test, you have to have hours behind the wheel and you have to drive it for a performance test," he said.

And boating is more complicated than driving, he said.

"There's no turn signals and highways on the water," he said. "And you don't need an operator's license. So if you can buy a boat, you can drive it."

But the new law has a hole in it. If you own a boat or drive a friend's boat, you will need a license. However if you rent a boat, you will not need a license.

Andersen said he understands that requiring a license would hurt tourism, but tourists and boat renters are also often the least experienced.

"We joke because we've overheard people who are renting a 20-foot boat to go out for the day and ask where the gas pedal is," he said. "And there is none on a boat."

Peterson with California's Division of Boating and Waterways said she understands the frustration that renters are left out of the law.

"We're enforcing the law as it was written," she said. "But we understand people's concern. Renters often have less experience."

California Senator Bill Monning, D-Carmel, wrote the law and said he decided to leave out renters because while they "at first blush appear to pose the greatest risk," rental facilities provide instruction before they take a boat out. He said he examined practices at rental facilities and feels confident they prepare boaters with enough education.

"The process of someone going through testing at a rental site was just not a realistic proposal," he said.

More than 80 percent of the boat accidents in the U.S. last year happened on boats that were not rented, according to the Coast Guard.

But still, local boaters worry.

"I go out on the bay, I go out on the ocean with my friends and with my family and it would be nice to know that everybody is at least doing the minimum," said Andy Kurtz, who is the last person you would expect to want requirements for boat renters. He owns Seaforth Boat Rentals in San Diego.

Photo caption:

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Andy Kurtz walks on the dock at Seaforth Boat Rentals in Mission Bay, June 30, 2017.

"Before my hair was grey, I used to make it grey by worrying that we would have boat licensing in California and that would negatively impact our business," he said.

Asking boaters to get a license ruins the spontaneity of being on vacation and deciding to rent a boat. But, Kurtz still wants required education for boat renters.

His employees give safety briefings to all boat renters both in the store and again on the dock. But not all boat renters give instructions to their customers, Kurtz said. He would have liked those briefings to be required under the new law.

"We do everything that we can to make sure that our customers have as much knowledge as they can, in the short amount of time that's allotted, that they can operate that boat safely," he said.

For boaters like 17-year-old Calvin Pedroli, that safety comes from education and practice.

"I'm always on the water, so I'm definitely comfortable now," Pedroli said. "Definitely starting it's kind of scary knowing that you have full control of a prop in the back and you're on the water, but I was pretty comfortable with it at the start because I was with my grandpa and my dad."

After learning from his family how to captain a boat, he now has no problem being out alone in the open ocean.

And he is pretty sure he will ace his test in time to get his boating license by January.

Photo caption:

Photo by Kris Arciaga

An employee prepares a boat at Seaforth Boat Rentals in Mission Bay, June 30, 2017.

Right now, almost anyone in California can hop on a boat and drive away without any training or a license. That will change this January when a new law goes into effect requiring boaters to pass a written test and get a California Boater Card.


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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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