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When Boaters go to School

by Skip Anderson

classroomWhen should a boater go to school? Right out of the gate, anyone who knows me might suspect my immediate response would be, “For life, of course!” However, the real challenge before boaters is sorting out different offerings, such as which school and when. What training where, with whom? Classroom-based, or on the water? How often and in what order? There are a lot of flavors of training, some of which are well suited for novices, and several of which might prove underwhelming for seasoned boaters, and yet others that represent a great fit. You’ll need to decide where you are in that training continuum. Some training is presented by well-qualified, well-intentioned, well-certified entities; you’ll need to do some homework to make the best fit choice for you.

So … where does a new boat owner start?

Typically, all it takes to buy a boat is a wad of cash and a signature. However, would boat ownership alone automatically define someone as a boater? Of course not. I’d suggest what matters most at this point would be embracing a fresh commitment to learn everything possible about your new adventure. It’s also an imperative that you check your ego at the door prior to the start of any training session. After all, how on earth can you possibly learn anything if you are convinced that you already know everything?

What are some of the most compelling reasons new boaters should seek training? First of all, state law dictates that any person over 14 years of age secure a state safe boater card – easy for anyone to do online – and meets the state’s needs to cover their (the State’s) assets should something go awry on the water.

Secondly, there’s insurance. For starters, some insurance companies won’t let you even move your boat yourself until you’ve been officially blessed by someone authorized by them to give you a “thumbs up” check ride. Beyond that, though, most marine insurance companies look with great favor (e.g. lower rates) upon those boaters that undergo more exhaustive training. There is such a wide range of training well suited for recreational boater skill building that it’d be tough to list all the “usual suspects” here: the Sea Scouts, US Power Squadron, USCG Auxiliary, ASA schools, US Sailing schools, and many other unaffiliated training
organizations, most with programs ashore and afloat (i.e. Mountaineers, private business on-the-water instruction, etc.).

What lies beyond that? Regionally, there are schools that provide Coast Guard captain’s license training, established for seasoned mariners to earn their Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) from the National Maritime Center. The primary goal of this training arena is workforce development, that is, employment on the water, which often requires a Coast Guard license for a potential new hire to even be considered. Without question, Washington State is a maritime state, with ample work available for trained mariners. Many seasoned mariners and students are pursuing a career change. Most are “over” the work they have done for the past 20 years and enter the classroom in their late thirties or early forties. Nearly all have an unstoppable passion for boating and want to put their experience to work. If you’re interested in this kind of education, look for an USCG-approved school that’s also licensed as a private vocational school by the State Workforce Training Board, VA-approved, has a full-time first-class training facility, and instructors who have spent decades at sea as opposed to decades in the classroom.

But let’s get back to the heart of the matter: why train at all? Because you will never, in fact can never, know everything about boating, and that invariably leaves a chance for the Laws of Probability to hurt you or someone on your boat, or even kill someone, sink or damage your boat beyond repair, or negatively affect the lives of other boaters. After all, The Sea doesn’t care. Physics don’t care. The caring is left to you, Skipper. Caring is your primary responsibility.

Here’s an old saying to consider: good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. Temper that bad judgment with quality training, and over time, your experience will mature more rapidly. Keep stowing experience after experience into your sea bag of tips, tricks, and techniques, and soon enough, perhaps without your conscious awareness, you’ll achieve good judgment! With consistent, long term effort, you have a reasonable shot at becoming a skilled, engaged, perceptive, safe, and fun boater. If lacking that commitment, however, you should probably find a different activity. After all, as I often say in my classroom, “This isn’t pottery class.” You literally hold people’s lives at stake every time you operate in a cavalier, unprofessional manner on the water. The Sea takes us to school every day we’re underway, whether or not we choose so. You simply need to give it your attention and decide; are you the skipper, or is The Sea?

As you commit and begin to sketch out your training calendar, consider these points. Constant training does little good unless it’s interspersed with time spent on the water, actually boating to reinforce what you’ve learned. Also, even know-it-alls can use an occasional dose of the fundamentals. Just ask Vince Lombardi (oh, if only you could).

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