House amends legislation for boating safety

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (3/31/01)
By Ray Pendleton

Initially, it would seem like an unlikely scenario. Hawai`i has the smallest number of registered boats, coupled with the worst boating facilities in the nation.

Yet this year's legislature is on the verge of passing a landmark boating safety law far more stringent than found in any other state.

Several weeks ago, I wrote of Senate Bill 216, which had been introduced by Senator Cal Kawamoto (D, Waipahu-Pearl City).

As originally proposed, the bill would have made it "unlawful to operate any vessel in the waters of the state, other than a canoe, surfboard or paddleboard, unless the vessel is equipped with a properly functioning emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB)."

The bill's rationale was that if every boat had an EPIRB, it would significantly reduce the time and effort involved in a search-and-rescue mission and increase the probability of its success.

It was also seen as a way to reduce the costs of such a mission.

On the surface, the bill appeared to have good intentions. But, according to the testimony of many in the maritime community - including both the potential rescuers and victims - the bill was flawed by its simplicity.

First, it was requiring all boat owners, no matter how small their boat, to purchase a devise they may never need and that costs between $600 and $1,000.

Second, it made no provisions for an alternate and less expensive method for broadcasting an emergency SOS, such as requiring boats to be equipped with a VHF marine radio and/or an EPIRB. The use of a VHF radio, which involves the Coast Guard monitoring channel 16, also allows the sender and receiver to discuss the nature of the emergency, whereas an EPIRB essentially just yells for help.

Third, the bill did not make any exceptions for boats participating in events while being escorted by committee vessels with proper emergency broadcasting equipment.

To the consternation of the Hawaii Ocean Safety Team's Bill Mossman, who offered a friendly amendment to the bill, SB 216 passed through all of the Senate's committee hearings unchanged.

It wasn't until the bill was finally being reviewed by the House of Representatives last week that Mossman and HOST, whose members include representatives from the Coast Guard, the state's Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, and the Honolulu Fire Department, found a sympathetic ear.

The bill is now designated SB 216, HD1, and has been amended to address the concerns of HOST and numerous other commercial and recreational boaters.

As amended, the bill now specifies that a marine VHF radio may serve as an alternative to an EPIRB, and it exempts vessels that operate less than one mile from shore.

It also exempts "certain non-mechanical vessels" - canoes, kayaks, etc. - provided they are "continuously escorted by a mechanically-powered vessel that is equipped with a marine VHF radio or an EPIRB while operating more than one mile from shore."

If passed by the full legislature and signed into law, this measure would certainly be historic, as there is nothing like it anywhere.

But on the other hand, no other state can match our isolated island geography, so perhaps the scenario isn't so unlikely after all.

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