Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Got a Boat? You May Need a License

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Got a Boat? You May Need a License

Article excerpt

Getting ready to leave all his everyday worries behind, Jeffery Bard energetically preps his 26-foot powerboat, "My Way," for a sojourn across Oyster Bay. For him and millions of other skippers, a day on the boat is one of the few ways left to disappear, to become just another zooming dot on the glimmering horizon.

But the days of the autonomous and anonymous sailor may be numbered. The US government, eager to improve boating safety and plug holes in a largely unguarded coastline, is considering requiring all states to license boaters or possibly mandating that all boaters obtain a federal photo ID.

Some skippers are offended at the idea of the government following too closely in their wake. Others, including Mr. Bard, are more sympathetic. "Right now, you don't need to take any courses, you don't need to take any tests, anyone can get behind the wheel," he says. "It's harder to drive a boat than it is a car."

Indeed, the trick to extending vehicle licenses to vessels, terrorism experts say, is to walk a thin plank between precaution and the civil liberties of boaters - a group whose tradition is to slip away from the dock and into anonymity.

"As we look along the coast and along the water, the issue of recreational vessels is the next logical step when considering potential gaps in security," says US Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela Hirsch in Washington. "The goal is getting a better understanding of who's out there."

With some 17 million boats on the water, as many as 70 million boaters, and 95,000-plus miles of shoreline, America has a coastal vulnerability that extends beyond the few miles of range around major ports that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has secured so far.

While the federal government will spend $178 million next year to attain a goal of placing radiation monitors at 98 percent of US ports, many experts say a jihadist cell would be less likely to ship a nuclear device in a container and more likely to deliver it in person in a recreational-style boat.

The attack on the USS Cole, for one, showed that small boats such as bowriders and cuddy cabins can be used to ram large ships and to launch mortar attacks, terrorism experts say.

"We've been doing relatively little, if anything, on the thousands of miles that are the unmonitored and uncontrolled coastal borders," says Henry Willis, a Pittsburgh-based policy researcher for the RAND Corp., a think tank that has studied America's coastal vulnerabilities.

Enter a boater's license. Currently, states regulate small vessels, and only two - Alabama and Connecticut - require licenses for boat operators. Attempts before 9/11 to introduce a license in Utah, which has no coastal waters, failed as legislators moved to protect "the last frontier" from onerous regulation, says Ted Woolley Jr. …

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