A succession of speakers at a state hearing Wednesday testified that New York State boating safety laws need to be strengthened significantly to protect the public.
The most prominent witnesses at the hearing were the parents of Victoria Gaines, 7, who died with two other children aboard the 34-foot Silverton cabin cruiser that capsized as it returned from a July 4 fireworks display with 27 people onboard.
Lisa and Paul Gaines flanked their attorney, Michael Della, as he made a statement on their behalf. A picture of Victoria was propped up on the table next to Lisa Gaines. The hearing was held at Oyster Bay Town Hall before members of the State Senate Standing Committee on Investigations and Government Operations.
"This should have and could have been prevented," Della said. "Numerous mistakes were made that night." He said his clients were "determined that similar incidents should not happen again."
He said, "the public is scared" and many boaters have told him they are avoiding going out on the water during busy times. "If ever there was a time to act, it is right now."
He said improved boating safety "far outweighs any inconvenience" that boaters would face if required to take a safety course under new state or county laws.
Della said the family is urging new legislation that would require boaters to take a safety class and that would set maximum occupancy limits for all recreational boats. The Coast Guard currently sets occupancy limits only for boats 20 feet or smaller.
The family also says there should be security in place at events that draw a large number of boaters, like the July 4 fireworks in Oyster Bay, to enforce all marine laws and control the boating traffic when the events end to prevent unsafe conditions.
State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey told the committee that "we are completely open to the ideas" proposed by the speakers and committee members. But she said any proposed legislation needs to be looked at to see how it compares with federal navigation laws and whether it's practical to enforce.
Sgt. John Owen, deputy commanding officer with the Nassau County police Marine Bureau told the committee that "the [current] laws are fine. The problem is the follow up." He said there are no state databases that allow any jurisdiction to check whether a boater has been charged with offenses in other jurisdictions and for multiple violations to be a factor in prosecution.
"You can have numerous tickets and still go boating," he said, unlike what happens to a motor vehicle driver who would lose the privilege of driving.
Lawrence Postel, the district commander for the U.S. Power Squadrons, a national boating safety group, said his organization "fully supports all efforts to mandate that every boater take, at the very least, the basic boating class."
He said classroom instruction should be augmented by online learning options to make education more accessible.
Still, Chris Squeri, executive director of the New York Marine Trades Association, said that mandatory education may not be the answer. He said that New York's fatality rate is lower than those of New Jersey and Connecticut, although New York has more registered boaters and those states have mandatory education.
"The mandatory education is not necessarily going to solve it," he said, referring to problems on the water.
He said his group supports voluntary education and does recommend stronger boating-while-intoxicated laws, including requiring those convicted of BWI to take a safety course.