By: Captain Bill Jennings
Most North American boaters understand regulations exist to ensure that persons driving a boat have a basic level of competency. Courses are available and cards are issued upon successful completion of a boating
course. What most boaters do not know is how such programs evolved, what their certificates actually mean, and what these programs provide in terms of liability coverage in terms of legal or insurance matters.
The Canadian Licensing System
The evolution of boat driving certificate programs is interesting. For many years, NASBLA, (the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators), and Transport Canada discussed the need to educate general boaters to
make boating safer. Eventually, a plan was agreed upon whereby all boaters would be required to demonstrate an understanding of important marine regulations, safe boating procedures, basic navigation, and weather reading. But before
such a plan saw the light of day, many individual American states proclaimed that they would devise their own education programs and did not want to be obligated to follow a national program. This killed the big plan. Despite this setback, Canada went ahead with what they called the Pleasure Craft Operator Card program. Now here's the important part --- the principle objective of this program was simply to ensure that all boaters became aware of the legal regulations in place for boating, as well as proper procedures to make boating safer. Transport Canada set up an implementation timeline so that eventually every boater would be required to hold such a card in order to drive a boat legally.
To launch and provide such a mammoth education and testing program, the Canadian government turned to the private business sector. Specialized private sector schools were certified, including the Canadian Power Squadron and Sail Canada. Once approved, these schools were authorized to provide both the government approved courses and the exam that identified graduating boaters. There are currently 21 course providers offering Transport Canada accredited courses to Canadians. Once the course is completed, they issue a credit card sized certificate that is good for life.
Soon after the PCOC program began processing the high number of Canadian boaters, it became a challenge for providers. To meet their objectives, several providers turned to the Internet for testing and this is where problems arose. The press picked up on boaters cheating on their Internet exam and some members of the public began to question the integrity of the program, even though many test-takers complete the course in person. Taking the boating exam still meets the legislator's original objective of making boaters aware of regulations, but governments don't take criticism well, so in response a simple government program was modified to include some stipulations. For example, because there is no picture on a PCOC card, boaters must also show a driver's license for the PCOC to be valid.
Even as I write this, there are proposals in the works to further expand the PCOC protocol. In essence, the PCOC card is a valuable and important part of boat ownership and operation and every Canadian boater should have it, but it is not a standalone accreditation.
The US Licensing System
Meanwhile in the USA, the boater education certification process can also be confusing. Each American state was left to establish their own requirements, if any, for operating a vessel on the waters within its jurisdiction. We are left with a
variety of approved boating safety and education certificates. Some of the courses are as simple as an online quiz with a certificate emailed to the boater, while others involve written exams based on regulation textbooks. The Canadian PCOC card is recognized in some states, but not in others.
Boaters who complete the PCOC or similar course can be left with the impression that they have acquired a 'license' to drive a boat. But this is not the case. Governments are quick to point out that certificates are not a license, but simply an acknowledgement that the person has taken a required course and passed a government approved exam. This can create a false sense of competency, and in some ways, can increase risk. Boaters can be sitting at the helm of a boat with their certificate, but may not have any experience driving it. What would happen if a person took a driving course that showed what a 'Stop' sign looked like, and then were put in a car and told to drive without any further instruction? In the same way, knowing which side of a boat has a red light does not necessarily qualify someone to drive a boat. Boaters who have never taken a 'hands-on' boating course are can be putting themselves and others at risk.
In resolving this issue, there are two points of view. There are those who believe it's sufficient to be a self-taught boater, and there are those that believe driving lessons and a driving exam should be mandatory. The first option is not likely to improve boat driving statistics over time, and the second will likely never get the full support of the industry because it could hurt business. I believe that there should be driving courses and check rides, but they should be optional. As an example, for a small fee boaters could book a short course, with or without a check ride. To encourage participation, there could be rewards for those who participate. Insurance companies could offer discounts to boaters with approved driving course experience, and higher premiums for boaters who have not taken a course. This would also better align higher claim costs with higher risks. When an on-water course provider sends a student their certification, it could include a free boat burgee and a discount for other merchandise that would verify and promote their advanced skill level.
In support of boat driver education, publications like BoatBlurb and others in the industry include entire sections of boat handling 'Tips' that are of practical use for all boaters. While our governments endlessly debate programs that can make a difference, boaters will continue to operate across North America under different rulesets and regulations. Be sure to know the rules where you go boating.