A personal watercraft being driven on the choppy waters of...

A personal watercraft being driven on the choppy waters of the Great South Bay at Heckscher State Park. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Nearly 20 years ago, Gina Lieneck and her family were returning from Fire Island when a large boat crashed into them, killing her 11-year-old daughter, Brianna.

Since then, Lieneck has been fighting to change boating safety laws to make sure no other family has to suffer the same tragedy.

Her efforts resulted in Brianna’s Law, requiring all operators of motorboats and personal watercraft to take a mandatory safety class that results in a certificate. The law was signed in 2019, and each year since, different age requirements have kicked in, with all ages required to have a certificate in 2025.

As summer unofficially begins with the Memorial Day weekend, Long Island authorities will be pulling over those operating on the water and checking for those certificates. They are also ramping up patrols and enforcement, watching for those operating their crafts in an unsafe manner or while intoxicated, during what is traditionally known as the “100 deadliest days of summer,” between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

    WHAT TO KNOW

  • Brianna's Law requires all boaters under 45 to complete a boating safety course that results in a certificate.
  • By Jan. 1, 2025, the law requires all boaters, regardless of age, to have a boating safety certificate.
  • Water temperatures this week were measured at 58 degrees, cold enough to cause hypothermia for those venturing into the surf.

This year, everyone under 45 is required to have a safety certificate to operate a boat, and all personal watercraft operators must have a boating safety certificate, regardless of age. State law set the minimum age to operate a personal watercraft at 14.

“It warms my heart. It’s been a long time coming. It was a no-brainer that these laws should have been passed a long time ago,” Lieneck said. “You need a license to drive a car and training to fly a plane. There’s no reason not to have boating safety classes. It’s just as dangerous driving a boat as a car. It’s worse. There are no stop signs or red lights on the water.”

Brianna was killed when the other boat operator crashed into a 1,200-pound canopy on the boat, crushing her. The boat operator was initially charged with boating while intoxicated charges, which were later dropped.

Lieneck, 63, of St. James, has partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and another grieving mother, Alisa McMorris, 50, of Wading River, whose 12-year-old son, Andrew, was killed by a drunken driver while hiking with a group of Scouts in Manorville.

“We want our tragedies to sit with every person in this universe long enough to make the right decisions,” McMorris said. “Waterways are part of our lifestyle in the summer and are ingrained in us. We live on an island. You have to know how to swim and [know] certain rules and requirements living here.”

Ahead of the holiday weekend, authorities were preparing to open most beaches on Long Island — although they warned that the temperature of the ocean and local waterways is still just in the high 50s — and waterfront communities were preparing for a busy few days.

In response to community concerns about aggressive boaters, Freeport police reinstituted its marine unit, including a sergeant and three officers, after the unit was dormant for about 10 years, Freeport Police Chief Michael Smith said. He said the unit was brought back last year to patrol Freeport’s busy waters, including the Nautical Mile, which was previously monitored by Nassau County police and Hempstead Town bay constables.

“We have a huge waterfront community, including bars, restaurants and commercial fishing,” Smith said. “We’ve received countless calls from residents appreciative of the marine unit after complaints about reckless driving from boats and Jet Skis in wake zones.”

In 2022, the last year of data state officials completed in a recreational boating report, Long Island or state authorities issued at least seven citations for boating while intoxicated on local waterways. In 2022 statewide, alcohol or drugs, including marijuana, were a factor in seven fatalities for the year, including at least one drowning off Long Island, according to the state parks department.

Nassau County police have not issued any violations for BWI for the past two years. Police said they responded to one fatal boating accident last year and eight boating accidents in 2023. Police wrote 761 boating summonses last year and so far have written 77 tickets this year for boating violations.

Suffolk's enforcement numbers for 2023 were not available.

The county saw five boating-related fatalities in 2022, and Suffolk police issued one BWI ticket in 2022. Southampton police issued two BWI tickets that year.

The number of boating accidents and fatalities on the water soared following the COVID-19 pandemic, due to inexperience or operators not paying attention, said Capt. Richard Werner, education director at Safe Boating America, a training company based on Long Island.

“It's important to stay vigilant in keeping a proper lookout at all times and especially realize that not everyone has taken a boating safety course and won’t be as safe as we’d like,” Werner said.

He also urged boaters to keep an eye out for swimmers and said that many of them may not realize they are required to stay 500 feet from marked swim areas.

Most beaches officially open for the season starting with the Memorial Day weekend, including Jones Beach, Sunken Meadow and Robert Moses state parks. Hempstead Town beaches at Point Lookout and Lido Beach and Long Beach beaches also are opening for the season.

State park officials already have hired 200 lifeguards, with about 350 lifeguards already certified and prepared to staff other beaches and pools by the end of June.

But state park officials warned swimmers don’t jump into the water just yet. On Thursday, the water temperature was only 58 degrees, and lifeguards were planning to limit swimmers to shallow depths and prepared to treat any concerns of hypothermia, state park regional director George Gorman said.

Water temperatures won't match the warm temperatures coming in the late spring and summer, according to the National Weather Service. Officials say the temperatures currently measured off Long Island's Atlantic coast can be deadly.

The warm air may give swimmers a false sense of security before entering the cold water in the ocean and lakes, but the shock can set in within one minute, loss of muscle control within 10 minutes and hypothermia within 20 to 30 minutes, according to the weather service.

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