Bob McLaughlin of the U.S. Power Squadron likes to tell boating stories--not to entertain, but to save lives.
He tells the story about the man who set off in dense fog in a dinghy just 100 yards from shore at Santa Catalina Island and was never seen again.
And the boat that exploded after the skipper left the fuel dock without checking the bilge for gas fumes.
And the skipper of a small boat who hailed a passing ship to ask: "Which way to Catalina? Can you point me in the right direction? I don't have a compass."
McLaughlin hopes such stories will convince beginning boaters to sign up for one of the safe-boating classes offered throughout Orange County by the U.S. Power Squadron, a national boating organization, or the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a civilian volunteer branch of the Coast Guard.
"As a new boater, these classes teach you the bare basics of safety, marine courtesy, laws and the rules of the road," McLaughlin says. "We teach you, for example, how to find your way home. There are people who go out on the water without a compass. Do you have any idea how far it is to Japan if you miss Catalina?"
Although a handful of states have made boating education mandatory, none require a license, and most states, including California, still rely on volunteer education programs such as those run by the Power Squadron and Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Boating enthusiasts, including officials at the Boat Owners Assn. of the United States in Alexandria, Va., believe that regardless of whether training is mandated by state law, every new boater--and not just the boat operator--should take a safety course.
"The whole family should take the course," says Susan Wright, associate administrator of the association. "Driving a boat is not the same as driving a car. If the operator becomes incapacitated, somebody else has to be able to handle the boat. You can't just pull it over to the side of the road and park."
Boating education is becoming increasingly important as the boating population grows, Wright says. "Nationally, boating is growing by 1.7 million new boaters a year. So there is increasing congestion on the water. Also, the speeds of boats are increasing. People have to know what they are doing out there."
John Velazquez, a Garden Grove contractor, teaches a beginning boating class for the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Like McLaughlin of the Power Squadron, Velazquez has heard dozens of boating stories that illustrate the need for basic education.
"We've been on weekend patrol and heard (radio) calls from people who went to Catalina and didn't know how to get back," he says. "We've heard of people who get on a boat and don't check the bilge so it fills with water and the boat sinks. We have heard of people who stay out too long. It gets dark and when they come back they don't know how to read navigation aids, so they miss the harbor entrance and run up on the rocks."
Velazquez believes there is no excuse for such ignorance and such accidents--especially when both the Power Squadron and Coast Guard Auxiliary classes are free and open to anyone, regardless of whether they own a boat.
Both the Power Squadron and Coast Guard Auxiliary classes cover boat handling, charts and charting, coastal navigation, equipment regulations and current boating laws. "And we cover every type of boat from rowboats and Sabots on up to 50-foot and larger yachts," says McLaughlin, who handles public information for the Balboa Power Squadron.
A 7-week Power Squadron class for beginning boaters starts at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Balboa Yacht Club, 1801 Bayside Drive, Corona del Mar. For information, call (714) 432-7816.
A 12-week Coast Guard Auxiliary class begins at 7 p.m. Feb. 7 at Tustin High School, 1171 El Camino Real, Tustin. For information, call (714) 530-7574.
The U.S. Boat Foundation keeps a computerized schedule of courses offered by the U.S. Power Squadrons and Coast Guard Auxiliary. For information about boating safety classes in this area, call (800) 336-BOAT.