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Inside a safe boating course

New sailboat co-owners Eliot Gardener, right, of East

New sailboat co-owners Eliot Gardener, right, of East Northport, James Pavek, center, of Northport and Pavek's daughter, Amber, left, attend a Coast Guard Auxiliary boat safety course at Northport High School. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Bow and stern were easy. But gunwale threw some of the students.

It was the first session of a four-night, eight-hour United States Coast Guard Auxiliary basic safe boating course at Northport High School recently, and the first item on the syllabus was boating terminology.

As slides flashed on the blackboard with arrows pointing to different parts of a motorboat, instructor Nancy Kinney of Centerport asked the students what they were called. Her class ranged from youngsters 10 to 18, who need the certification to operate a motorboat without an adult, to senior citizens.

The answers -- or lack of them -- demonstrated that most of those taking the course had a lot to learn -- or relearn -- even if they had been boating most of their lives.

Their presence was strictly voluntary, although many said they were aware of Suffolk County's new law that will require all motorboat drivers to pass a safety course. They also knew that the state legislature is considering a similar law in the aftermath of a July Fourth boating accident in Oyster Bay in which three children died.

Kenney began by talking about the types of boats and engines, remarking that "the smaller they are, the harder they are to handle."

Then, as the students followed along in the 76-page instruction book, she began quiz identifying the parts of a boat. They knew that a cleat was where a dock line would be tied off, that the beam was the width of the boat and even that freeboard was the distance between the water and the top of the side of a boat.

But when no one knew the term gunwale, Kinney told them that it was "the edge of the cockpit." And when no one knew what transom meant, she said, "The very end of the boat."

Helen DaSilva, education coordinator for the Auxiliary's Northport Flotilla, said the class is most helpful for those considering buying a boat. But "most often, it's people who already have a boat" who take it -- about half with personal watercraft and the rest with other types of powerboats, along with a few sailors.

She said she had not noticed a large influx of students because of highly publicized fatal accidents this summer or the passage of the Suffolk law.

In fact, DaSilva said, the number of people taking the classes has dropped in the past three years, probably because of the poor economy resulting in fewer people being able to afford boats. So the organization lowered the price of the course from $50 to $40, but it did not make a big difference in attendance.

Bob Christensen, 66, a retired electrician from Shoreham, said he was taking it because "I've boated in the past since I was 5 and I understand there are a number of new regulations and I want to get some refresher on what I already knew. There's been so many accidents in the last couple of years, so I'd like to get everything clear in my mind about everything we should have on the boat." He doesn't own a boat but does get out on the water with friends and he also kayaks.

James Pavek of Northport, 53, a contractor, came with daughter Amber, 14, because he and two partners had acquired their first boat, a 27-foot sailboat, this summer. "I want to learn all the rules and I want my daughter to learn all the rules," he said, after reading newspaper stories about serious boat accidents this summer and the new Suffolk requirement.

"Everybody should know what they're doing out there," Pavek said. "It's just like driving a car."

Amber said she wanted to take the course so she could operate the boat and not just be a passenger. She knew she and her father needed the training after the initial trips on the boat this summer.

"I watched my dad run the boat with my two uncles and it was awful," she said.

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