If John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi were sharing a leaky boat, theyd argue over what to plug the holes with as the water swirled in around them. While yelling at each other theyd probably be stamping their feet and pounding their fists, creating a few new leaks as well. At some point there would be too many holes to pack them all closed, and the ship would seem lost until someone jumped in and saved the day by filling all those holes with Super Pacs. Safe once again, John and Nancy would be free to Moveon, and Occupy themselves with niceties like Tea Parties. WHEW - arent you glad these folks dont get involved in boating laws?
Before the relief becomes palpable, I have some bad news for you: Congress actually does have quite a bit on influence on what you can and cannot do while on your own boat. Pushing ethanol, increasing engine emission standards, and keeping GPS satellites in orbit are just a few examples of how their "work" affects us, both positively and negatively, in either direct or roundabout ways. What about those federal regulations aimed squarely at boaters? These come courtesy of the US Coast Guard. Dim-witted and ill-mannered as our elected officials sometimes appear to be, evidently, they do have enough common sense to leave the boat decisions to the boat guys. Or, maybe they just passed the buck when it came to boats because it was time for a recess and no one wanted to cut into their water-skiing time. Whatever. Either way, we can be relieved its the Coast Guard that usually pushes the boating laws agenda. Maybe...
There are a few topics of discussion amongst the coasties and other boating law groups right now, most of which are completely sensible. But one is not. Big brother could be coming out with you for a boat ride, if the NBSAC (National Boating Safety Advisory Council, a Coast Guard advisory group) has its way. Last year, they drafted a resolution asking the Coast Guard to initiate requirements for mandatory life jacket use. And---surprise---mandatory life jacket use has sprung up in the National Recreational Boating Safety Programs 2012 - 2016 Strategic Plan (which you can find on the Coast Guards boating safety resource center web site: http://www.uscgboating.org/).
To be perfectly clear, their idea isnt to force everyone to wear life jackets on all boats at all times. At least, not yet. Their initial recommendation was to expand mandatory PFD use to people on boats 18 and under. As you already know, of course, in most states you have to wear a PFD if youre riding a waterbike, are younger than a certain age (13, in Texas), or are being towed. And these are all sensible rules, for sure. But I have two problems with expanding the requirements to boats up to 18. First off, there are plenty of times when wearing a lifejacket in an 18 boat is completely unnecessary and even problematic. When Im idling out from my duck blind to pick up a bird the dog missed, for example, I sure as heck dont want to try to clip a life jacket over my hunting jacket and waders. Secondly, theres this ominous little problem we have called "regulatory creep." You know how it works---this year they make life jackets mandatory on boats 18 and under, then next year, someone comes up with the bright idea of making it mandatory on boats 20 and under. Before you know it, youll have to wear a full survival suit and scuba gear to go cane-poling for sunfish.
In all fairness, there are also plenty of laudable goals included in the 2012 - 2016 Strategic Plan. Improving life jacket testing and approval standards, reducing boating under the influence of alcohol, and targeting tests of boats that have a high probability of failure for level and upright floatation, are all examples of good ideas. And while I express my disdain for expanding mandatory life jacket wear to boats up to 18 feet, Id like to note that I always ask everyone onboard to wear one (and wear one myself) when running offshore, in rough seas, or in cold waters, even though the law doesnt require it. But every time I hear the word "mandatory" I feel a little more freedom slipping away.
Heres one more little tidbit of info that most of you probably havent heard, even if youre familiar with the NRBSP strategic plan: two of its signatories happen to be employed by companies that manufacture PFDs, and a third is the president of a PFD manufacturers association. Now, I might not be the sharpest hook in the tacklebox, but that seems like a slight conflict of interest to me. It reminds me of when John Boehner invested between $10,000 and $50,000 in seven companies that stood to profit from Keystone XL, shortly before pushing to approve the pipeline. Or when Nancy Pelosi pushed for the NATGAS Act while owning shares of a company called Clean Energy Fuels, which stood to benefit. We already have to put up with this stuff in politics---do we really want it in our boats, too?