The water glistened as Capt. Rob Walkoviak clipped on his life jacket aboard his 19-foot Seaswirl, docked at the Esplanade on the Nautical Mile in Freeport. Walkoviak, from Baldwin Harbor, is a lead boating instructor at Long Island Boat Training in Freeport. His life’s work is teaching boating and water safety.
“Boater safety,” he said, “is a matter of life and death.”
According to Walkoviak, the lessons can be expensive, but they are “the best money you’re going to spend. It could save your life.”
Brianna’s Law, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Aug. 6, will require boaters to take safety courses and pass exams to become certified.
“Boating has become much more popular, and our rules and our laws really have not kept pace with it,” Cuomo said. “There should be a basic level of knowledge that you have before you’re given the permission to go out there and operate a boat, and making a safety course mandatory is common sense.”
The law will take effect Jan. 1, 2020.
“Knowing the laws of the waterways is crucial,” State Sen. John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford, said at a news conference in June. “It’s simply a matter of common sense that informed vessel operators will result in safer waters.”
Brianna’s Law is named for 11-year-old Brianna Lieneck, from Deer Park, who was killed in a boating accident on Aug. 17, 2005. Her parents were critically injured when their boat collided with another on the Great South Bay, just east of the Robert Moses Causeway.
Freeport has long been known as one of the boating and fishing capitals of the East. At the turn of the 20th century, Freeport was famous for its oysters, which were shipped around the world. It is still a commercial fishing center, and there are many leisure boats moored at its docks. The Nautical Mile, at the Woodcleft Canal, is home to several eateries accessible by boat, with a thriving nightlife and party boats cruising local waters.
More than 40,000 recreational boats are registered in Nassau County, in addition to a large number of commercial fishing vessels, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the top five contributing factors to boating accidents are operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, machinery failure and alcohol use.
Capt. Richard Werner, of Malverne, a boating instructor and the founder of Safe Boating America, has, like Walkoviak, taught boating safety for more than 20 years. Werner also uses Freeport as a classroom, and has held courses at the Freeport Recreation Center.
According to Werner and Walkoviak, in the past, new owners often bought their boats before ever taking a safety course.
“Boat dealers don’t provide sufficient training,” Werner said. “Anyone can buy a 65-foot boat from a dealer with no training.”
Walkoviak said there were a few instances in which his students bought boats and didn’t have the correct number of life jackets, horns, whistles, flares or distress flags, all of which are mandatory on boats.
Both captains agreed that responsible boaters must undergo proper training before purchasing a boat. “Having a boating certificate means you completed the comprehensive course of instruction in boating safety and navigation,” Werner said.
“Think of it like having a car,” Walkoviak explained. “You don’t drive without a license. You have to take a course and tests. That’s boating, too.”
The Boating Safety Certificate requires a minimum eight-hour course, with 50 multiple-choice exams at the end. The minimum age to take a safety course is 10. The busiest teaching season is February through August.
Baldwinite Michelle Antonelli admitted that she hadn’t taken a safety course before purchasing her boat. She said she primarily takes it out on a lake in Pennsylvania. She also recently bought two personal watercraft to take her grandchildren to explore the channels and canals. She tried to take an online boating course, but with a laugh, she said, “It was a pain in the neck.”
She attended one of Werner’s classes in Bethpage. “It’s just one day of my life, but it will be done,” Antonelli said. “It taught me about the difference between reading the buoys and navigation.”
According to Jill Byrne, an Oceanside native now living in East Norwich in Oyster Bay, making New York waters safer is important. The courses, she said, “actually teach more than people think they’re going to learn.”