By Sue Botos
Ohio House Bill 29, known as the Boater Freedom Act, has made waves among boaters in the Lake Erie islands, but along the Westshore, it has caused barely a ripple.
The legislation, recently signed into law by Gov. John Kasich, establishes criteria for watercraft safety inspections in the state, and aims to decrease the number of stops that recreational boaters experience on the lake and Ohio’s other waterways.
Sponsored by state Rep. Rex Damschroder of Fremont, the bill states that state or local law enforcement officers no longer have the authority to stop or board a vessel to conduct a safety inspection unless the owner or operator voluntarily requests it, there is reasonable suspicion that the vessel, its equipment or its operator is in violation of local watercraft law or the craft is being inspected as part of an authorized checkpoint.
In addition, the bill exempts charter boat captains and others holding certain U.S. Coast Guard credentials and endorsements from completing Ohio’s boater education course.
“I have mixed feelings about this, but I understand the reasoning behind it,” commented Rocky River Marine Patrol chief Sgt. Joe Boncek. He said that it was objections from boaters around the Lake Erie islands about being randomly stopped several times each trip that set the legislation in motion.
“The complaints were not from this side of Lake Erie. It (the bill) won’t affect us too much. We have a good rapport with our boaters,” he added.
According to information on the Ohio House website, Damschroder called the random checks an “intrusive, time consuming burden.” It added that HB 29 is a “common sense approach” resulting in the elimination of excessive safety checks.
But does this mean Westshore waters will be less safe? According to local authorities, the move will not rock the boat. “I don’t know if it makes a difference,” stated the marine patrol’s Sgt. Bill Crates. He added that voluntary inspections will still be offered by police. “We would set up in the river and call boats over, but we can’t do that anymore,” added Crates.
Bonsek reported that while close to 50 percent of boats stopped, about 150 last season, failed safety checks, the infractions were minor, often amounting to expired registrations, unclear identification numbers or too few life jackets. “Alcohol is not a big issue for us. We had no BUIs (boating under the influence) last year and none so far this season,” he stated.
According to Bonsek, the marine patrol has always had a good, collaborative relationship with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which provides operating grants for the service and the U.S. Coast Guard. “We work every major event in Cleveland,” he said, noting the patrol’s presence at this year’s Tall Ships Festival and past participation in the Cleveland National Airshow.
Local boaters, in general, feel the legislation will have little, if any, impact on their time on the water, and that those inspections were not a problem.
“It’s something where the police are just doing their job,” remarked Jim Speng, marketing director for the Freedom Boat Club, which offers watercraft for lease to members who want the boating experience without the hassle of boat ownership. The club has a location at the Emerald Necklace Marina in Rocky River.
“We welcome inspections. We also do our own safety checks before members take out the boats,” Speng said. While a few vessels failed inspections at the beginning of the season, he said it was for some minor violations, which were quickly fixed.
He added that members must take mandatory training before taking a boat out, to prove that they are able to handle the craft. “We’ve never had any complaints about being stopped for checks,” Speng recalled.