Bay Constable officers for the Town of Hempstead discuss the importance of boater safety for the summer season.  Credit: Barry Sloan

Thousands of boats are expected to be on the water for the Fourth of July weekend, and experts say some of those operating them are unprepared to navigate safely.

More boats have launched in Long Island waters since many residents put their land vacations on hold during the COVID pandemic and turned to the seas for recreation, experts and bay constables say.

The number of boating registrations on Long Island had remained the same in recent years, about 89,000 boats registered in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to the state parks department. But during the 2020-2021 period, 1,000 new boats were registered.

“There’s a real lack of training, and after COVID, a lot of people started using boats for lack of being able or allowed to do other things,” said Richard Werner, a U.S. Coast Guard licensed national education director who runs a training company, Boating Safe America, adding that many of the new boaters haven't driven a boat for many years. 


  • Police and bay constables will be increasing patrols through the July 4 weekend enforcing safety regulations, including speeding, reckless boating and boating while intoxicated.
  • Many new boaters are on the waters now, due to the pandemic, and some of them lack training, experts say.
  • Boating safety courses will be required for all boaters by Jan. 1, 2025, regardless of age.

"The majority of accidents occur from operator inattention, not maintaining a proper lookout at all times," Werner said. "Don’t use the Fourth of July celebration as an excuse to consume too much alcohol."

Holiday weekend enforcement 

The extended holiday week presents a particular challenge for the Coast Guard and local authorities, who are increasing patrols to enforce safe boating, cracking down on speeding, wake restrictions and boating while intoxicated.

"We’ll be putting more personnel in our marine bureau up until July 4 to stop anyone driving or boating under the influence," said Suffolk Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison.

Last year, there were 50 boating while intoxicated tickets issued statewide, including at least seven by Long Island authorities. Between 2005 and 2022, drugs or alcohol was the primary contributing factor in 79 fatalities, or more than 21% of all boating deaths statewide, according to the state parks service.

In 2022, alcohol or drugs, including marijuana, were a factor in seven of the total fatalities for the year, including at least one drowning off Long Island, according to the state parks department.

Boaters face the same legal restrictions and penalties for boating while intoxicated as driving.

Hempstead Bay Constable Sgts. Matt Sohm and Michael Brennan, who canvas about 180 miles of coastal waterways along the town’s bays and South Shore, spend much of their time looking for unsafe boating and intoxicated boaters who drive dangerously or become disoriented.

Town of Hempstead Sgt. Bay Constable Matt Sohm patrols off...

Town of Hempstead Sgt. Bay Constable Matt Sohm patrols off of Point Lookout June 21. Credit: Barry Sloan

“When you’re driving down the street, things don’t change and you depend on it for your navigation,” Brennan said. In a boat, however, he added: “The tide can wash over any landmarks, and it looks nothing like when you left it. You don’t want to handicap yourself on the water. It’s hard enough as it is.”

Boating-related fatalities statewide jumped from 15 to 31 from 2019 to 2020, including 10 off Long Island. There were 28 fatalities statewide last year, including five in Suffolk County. No fatalities were reported last year in Nassau.

Of those statewide fatalities, 21 people who died, or 75%, were not wearing life jackets, according to the state parks service.

There already have been several boating-related deaths this year, including a Massapequa boater in the Great South Bay and a Locust Valley man who drowned boating off Oyster Bay.

Mandating boater training 

Experts and law enforcement officials are looking to improve safety on the water with measures like New York’s Brianna’s Law, passed in 2019 and says that by January 2025, all powerboat operators, regardless of age, must have a boating safety certificate after a state-approved eight-hour course. The law phased in such training based on age. Boats can be operated by anyone as young as 10 with a boating safety certificate, according to New York State law. 

Long Island Congressional representatives Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport), Anthony D’Esposito (R-Island Park) and Nick LaLota (R-Amityville) are sponsoring the Brianna Lieneck Boating Safety Act, which would encourage states to mandate boating safety training and direct the U.S. Coast Guard to submit a report to Congress on ways to improve boating safety and “reduce the number of boating accidents that occur due to untrained boat operators.”

Brianna's mother, Gina Lieneck, recalled the crash that killed 11-year-old Brianna in 2005, in which she, her husband and another daughter, Danyelle, also were critically injured after their boat was struck by a larger vessel while returning from Fire Island. Boating while intoxicated charges were filed against the other boat operator, but later dropped.

“I lost my beautiful daughter Brianna to a horrific boating accident 18 years ago on the Great South Bay,” Gina Lieneck said in a statement through Garbarino’s office. “Life changed in a matter of seconds … Each year, too many Americans are injured or killed due to preventable recreational boating accidents on our waterways.”

The Coast Guard Auxiliary, several volunteer organizations and towns offer online and in-person boating safety courses.

Boating safety courses are also required to operate a personal watercraft like a Jet Ski, which is limited to those 14 and older. Sohm described Jet Skis like “a Harley-Davidson on the water.”

Just last month, a 16-year-old on a personal watercraft broke his leg when he collided with another personal watercraft. Town officials said the teens were jumping wakes of boats off Point Lookout when one landed on the other and hit nearby rocks.

“In this instance, some poor decisions and mistakes were made and we hope we can all learn from them,” Sohm said. “The way to avoid tragedy and accidents on the water is education.”

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