An open letter from John Fetterman to paddlers.

Tuesday, 06 May 2008
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Last week John Fetterman, president of National Association of Boating Law Administrators was quoted in USA Today, "paddling represents our greatest risk in the recreational boating community"...
Last week John Fetterman, president of National Association of Boating Law Administrators was quoted in USA Today, "paddling represents our greatest risk in the recreational boating community".

The article went on to say that the US coast guard and other legislators are starting to speak up and publically saying that there should be mandatory safety instruction for canoe and kayakers.

To clarify his position, John Fetterman posted an open letter to the paddling community in the Main Today Newspaper today.

The letter has a couple of interesting points in it. I can't talk about them all here but maybe another time. One section in the letter that I thought was interesting was his summery of safety concerns that he had.

With the continued increase in activity, I remain concerned about several major safety factors within the paddlesports community:

   1. Lack of education when purchasing equipment suitable for the activity
   2. Lack of appropriate clothing for cold water environments
   3. Lack of life jackets
   4. Lack of visibility in a coastal environment
   5. Lack of trip planning


Remember, these are the safety concerns of an outsider looking in through the window. That to me is the scariest part because he is 100% bang on.

Of course, everybody is against increased government regulation.

To me, it comes down to this, if you don't want government regulation forcing you to take courses or register your canoe or kayak, then it is time that we as a community start self regulating ourselves better then what we are currently doing now.

I'm not quite sure where the road will go but I envision some sort of partnership between paddling Associations and manufactures to get safety information out to new paddlers. Maybe it's a manual or information on where to find courses in your area. I don't know but if we as an industry keep sitting on our hands, the government will just say, "Ok, since you aren't doing anything, then we will".

And that will be bad for everybody all round.

More info:
Bad Paddling Press in USA Today
Kayakers Aid Terrorists



Here is a copy of the open letter that was posted in Maine Today:

Our most visible recreational boating population, not only on our waterways but our highways as well, are paddlers.

When I said, "paddling represents our greatest risk in the recreational boating community," it was a nationwide implication pertaining to the explosive growth in kayaking and a resurging interest in canoeing. And, from the risk factor, states around the country are working as members of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) to strive to make all aspects of paddlesports safer. I also spoke in my role as the NASBLA president and my perspective is greatly influenced by my position with the Maine Marine Patrol, as the state's boating law administrator (Coastal) and my long involvement with paddlesports issues in the Northeast.

As president of the National Association of Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), I spend a lot of time looking at trends in boating safety across the country. Basic boating safety education courses (approved by NASBLA and accepted by the U.S. Coast Guard) have made significant strides in the reduction of boating-related fatalities in states that have adopted mandatory training for motorized boating.

In a snapshot of U.S. Coast Guard Accident data between 1987, which involved 1,032 fatalities, and 2006, which involved 710 fatalities, we have seen significant reduction in the number of overall boating fatalities. In many states where a "quick phase-in" has required all boaters of motorized craft to pass a boating safety course, we've seen as much as a 30% drop in fatalities. Unfortunately, while we have watched a decline in motorized boating fatalities over the last decade, we have seen an increase in non-motorized fatalities.

Within the First Coast Guard District, which encompasses New Jersey to Maine, non-motorized fatalities attributed to 50.85% of all recreational boating fatalities in 2007. Specifically in Maine, during 2007, we had 15 boating-related fatalities: Six fatalities resulted from canoe and kayak activities, and six people drowned after capsizing in an open boat 16 feet or less in length. One person died after being hit by a propeller and two people died in a boat collision. Other than one of the canoe/kayak victims, none of the other victims in Maine were wearing a life jacket. As you can see from the statistics in Maine, paddling is a predominant at-risk boating activity and certainly lack of life jackets remains a constant contributor.

Looking at trends in recreational boating activity, I believe we will continue to see dramatic increases in the sale of canoes and kayaks for many reasons - ease of access, low cost at large chain stores, increasing fuel costs, etc. With the continued increase in activity, I remain concerned about several major safety factors within the paddlesports community:

   1. Lack of education when purchasing equipment suitable for the activity
   2. Lack of appropriate clothing for cold water environments
   3. Lack of life jackets
   4. Lack of visibility in a coastal environment
   5. Lack of trip planning

The only NASBLA-approved boating safety courses being offered throughout the country are based on a set of standards for motorboat operators. No states require paddlers to take a boating safety course. This could change in the future through a set of Paddlesports Standards which have recently been created by NASBLA in coordination with the American Canoe Association (ACA). The Paddlesports Standards are in their final stages of completion and the NASBLA membership will be voting whether to accept them in September. These standards include all of the points listed above as well as other relevant safety information. The adopted standards could be covered in a two to three-hour classroom course created specifically for paddlers.

In addition, the NASBLA Special Risks Subcommittee currently is studying factors associated with accidents and fatalities among paddlesports and other boating participants, and in one study, with a focus on special risks among children and youth ages 17 and under. The Subcommittee is charged with identifying and recommending "best practices," such as awareness through education efforts, that states can implement to minimize the risks to participants.

In your e-mail, you cited alcohol as a major factor in boating fatalities. Boating under the influence (BUI) is a major concern for NASBLA. We conduct BUI detection and enforcement training for marine patrol officers across the country and, in many states, BUI violations are being linked to driver's license eligibility. One model state, Florida, has created a repeat offender boating safety requirement that would suspend a violater's right to boat in that state until he has completed an educational course specifically designed for boating violators.

We face many challenges in lowering the boating fatality number below the 700 mark. I believe that we will only prevail through mandating education for all boaters and increasing the wear rate of life jackets.

I appreciate your time in reaching out to me for clarification. If you would like additional information about boating in your state, you may follow up with your state boating law administrator. A link to his/her contact information is available on NASBLA's website.

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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