A pair of fatal accidents that claimed four lives in less than two weeks has illustrated how dangerous Long Island's busy waters can be and renewed calls for a law requiring adults to pass a safety course before operating a motorboat.
With 71,000 registered recreational boats in Suffolk and 32,500 in Nassau, "Long Island waters are very busy," said Larry Weiss, Long Island spokesman for U.S. Power Squadrons, a national boating safety group.
"When there's a special event like July Fourth fireworks, you need even more to know how to interact safely and courteously with other boaters," he said. "Good safety education and solid experience enables you do deal with these issues more competently and safely."
A fatal accident June 23 off Captree Island involving an alleged drunken boater and the capsizing in Oyster Bay of a cabin cruiser the night of the Fourth, causing the deaths of three children, has galvanized boating safety groups pushing for mandatory education.
In the first accident, Brian Andreski, 26, of Dix Hills, was charged with boating while intoxicated after his powerboat broadsided a fishing boat, Suffolk police said. Christopher Mannino, 39, of West Islip, fell into the water after the collision and died.
In last Wednesday's tragedy, Sal Aureliano of Huntington said a wake caused the boat he was piloting to turn over. The children were trapped in the cabin. Authorities are investigating whether wakes from other boats, stormy weather, overcrowding, or mechanical failure played a role, and whether there were enough life vests aboard. Aureliano said he was piloting his brother-in-law Kevin Treanor's boat because he was more experienced.
Class not required in NY
In New York, only people younger than 18 who want to operate a boat without an adult present, or operators of water scooters are required to pass a safety class. New Jersey, Connecticut and 23 other states have laws requiring safety classes for adult mariners.
"People don't know how to read [navigational] charts" and run aground, said Mitch Kramer, owner of an Oyster Bay marine towing firm, who was among the rescuers at the scene of the Oyster Bay accident. "Some people don't even know the Long Island side from the Connecticut side."
To try to make safety lessons mandatory in New York, local boating organizations say they will renew their lobbying efforts, using the recent accidents as ammunition.
"In order to drive a car, you need all kinds of training, learner's permit, written test, road tests, and then you get a license," Weiss said.
But when it comes to boating in New York, "you or I could just go down to a boat shop, buy a boat and go," said Vincent T. Pica II, chief of staff for the Coast Guard Auxiliary region that includes Long Island.
"Until the triple fatality, we were running significantly behind on fatal accidents at this time of year" statewide, said Brian Kempf, the state's boating administrator. Usually there are about 25 fatalities per year.
As of July 3, there had been five deaths on state waters this year, half the 2011 total at the same point. The statewide toll, however, bumped up to 11 Thursday when three people died after their boat hit a buoy on Oneida Lake upstate.
Despite the recent fatal accidents, Kempf said "safety is overall better. There is a greater awareness out there."
But some boating groups say that is not enough.
"There's a lot more people who need to take boating-safety education classes," said Scott Croft, spokesman for the Boat Owners Association of the United States. "Unfortunately, it's not mandatory in New York State" even though more and more states are going that way.
He said it's important to make sure the courses are widely available when required so that people don't have trouble taking them.
It's also prudent to phase in the requirement over time, he said, so there are enough instructors and courses to go around, a lesson New Jersey learned the hard way after imposing the requirement several years ago and angering boaters who couldn't find a course.
The courses are necessary, Weiss said, because "there's a tremendous disregard for the rules on the water, and a tremendous disregard for common sense."
He said one shortcoming of most courses is that they are strictly classroom sessions with no hands-on training, but that is starting to change. Some businesses and nonprofit centers offer on-the-water instruction as well. And the U.S. Power Squadrons has just developed an on-water training class.
The practical training is critical, Weiss said, citing operating a water scooter as a good example: "Your instinct, if something's in your way, is to cut the throttle. But if you cut the throttle on a Jet Ski, you no longer have steering and you crash right into whatever it is you were trying to avoid."
He acknowledged that training and rules can go against the traditional nature of being out on the water and the freedom it affords.
"But you're not alone out there," he said. "There are other boaters you have to interact with. You have to know what you're doing and have everybody agreeing on what the rules are. And how do you know what the rules are if nobody bothers to take the class?"
Challenges in LI waters
Aureliano, driver of the boat that capsized July 4, was a "smart" boat captain, said Jim Scudieri, 49, of Huntington, who belongs to the same boat club as Aureliano.
But the challenges of Long Island waters abound. They include the shallow depth of South Shore bays and the rocky reefs off North Shore headlands, where trouble lurks for boaters who fail to stay in marked channels.
"With all the advances in technology, you would think it would be safer on the water," Kramer said. "I thought GPS was going to be a huge advancement in boating safety. What I found is that it doesn't seem like much has changed. There's a lot of people who have the technology but they don't know how to use it."
Bryan Sorice, 39, of West Islip, has been taking people fishing for more than two decades. "We all have to get a driver's license to drive a car," Sorice said. "We should be required to take a boating safety course to operate a boat."
Some safety advocates favor a full licensing program similar to motor vehicles coupled with mandatory education, as is the case in Georgia. But that idea is not popular with most boating groups.
"Licensing for licensing sake is just another revenue source and it doesn't solve the boating safety problem," Croft said. He said it's the training that is important.
Variety of legislative fixes
State lawmakers have been responding to the growing concern over boating safety with an array of proposed legislation.
Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick), sponsor of the existing boating-while-intoxicated law, is drafting legislation for next session that would impose tougher penalties on drunken boaters who had a child onboard or a blood-alcohol level of 0.18 percent or higher. These changes would mirror existing motor vehicle penalties.
"We've always said that when somebody drives drunk, the car becomes a 2,000-pound weapon, similar to a boat, so there should be no distinction," he said.
Fuschillo's proposal follows more than a half-dozen failed legislative attempts in the past session that aimed to make waterways in and around New York safer.
"I am aware of the Wild West nature of the coastal waters to the detriment of tourists and recreational boaters who are good citizens," said Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), who introduced a bill requiring that anyone convicted of BWI be required to take a safety class. "I hear stories of near misses all the time."
A measure sponsored by state Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) sought to link all alcohol-related offenses -- whether in a car, boat, snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle -- to ensure repeat violators face stiffer penalties.
The proposed law was named for a Syracuse woman, Tiffany Heitkamp, 20, who was killed in July 2006 in the Adirondacks while riding in a boat piloted by a drunken boater. The boat operator had been convicted of DWI, but at his sentencing for BWI he was treated as a first-time offender. DeFrancisco's bill passed the Senate, but not the Assembly.
The strictest proposal sought to give judges the power to suspend an individual's driver's license. The bill didn't make it out of the Senate Transportation Committee.