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Mandated Recreational Skipper Training Arrives in Maine

By Clarke Canfield

Ensuring that skippers have basic skills is intended to make Maine's inland and coastal waters safer. Photo courtesy Yarmouth Boat Yard

It used to be that anybody with access to a boat and a hankering to hit the water could cruise—or roar across—Maine waters without documenting that they knew what they were doing. That’s now changed.

Beginning this year, Maine law requires people born on or after January 1, 1999, to complete a recreational boating safety and education course to operate motorboats and sailboats with a 25-hp or greater engine. The law applies to both inland and ocean waters out to roughly three miles offshore.

With the new law, Maine becomes the 45th state with some form of education requirement for boat operators, according to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. Courses are available online and in person. People who complete the course and pass a 60-question written exam will receive a recreational boating education card.

Education is vital, particularly in the cold-water ocean environment where skippers contend with tides, currents, and visibility restrictions while having to put navigation principles to use, said Maine Marine Patrol Col. Matthew Talbot. 

“According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, there were 31 recreational boating accidents in Maine in 2022 resulting in nine fatalities, which underscores the risk recreational boat operators face,” Talbot said. “While it’s impossible to know how many of those accidents could have been prevented by increased education, the requirement for recreational boating education outlined in law will most certainly increase public awareness of and adherence to safe boating practices.”

With more than 3,500 miles of coastline, 6,000 lakes and ponds, and some 32,000 miles of rivers, Maine has a lot of water. It also has a lot of recreational motorboats—more than 116,000 at last count. But as public use of those waters has grown through the decades, so have complaints about unsafe boating behavior, such as boats operating too close to shore, disturbing wildlife, and creating conflicts with waterfront property owners or at public boat launches.

Maine lawmakers passed a bill in 2022 known as An Act to Improve Boating Safety on Maine Waters. As part of the law, the legislative Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee directed that a stakeholder group be formed to discuss how mandatory boating education should be implemented in Maine.

Many favored mandatory training for all recreational boat operators, regardless of age. Coast Guard statistics show that the largest number of recreational boating accidents nationally involve boat operators ages 36 to 55, followed by those over 55, those ages 26 to 35, and then those ages 19 to 25.

In the end, though, a compromise was reached and the group recommended that Maine grandfather boat operators born before 1999, thus joining 23 other states that have a born-after provision on training. Eventually, as time passes in the decades ahead, all recreational boaters in Maine will be required to take part in education training. The law also applies to people who operate personal watercraft, such as Jet-Skis; the minimum age to operate a personal watercraft is 16.

Maryland was the first state to have a recreational boating education requirement, enacted in 1985, according to Mark Chanski, education director for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, widely known as NASBLA. Since then, states, one by one, have passed some form of boating education requirement. Nearly 562,000 people successfully completed NASBLA-certified training courses in 2021, the latest year that statistics are available.

In Maine, in-person courses are offered at various locations, which are listed on the Department of Inland
Fisheries and Wildlife website. There are also three approved vendors that provide online courses. After taking the course and passing the exam, boaters will be issued a boater safety and education course certificate that they must possess and show upon request to a law enforcement officer.

The law does not apply to registered Maine hunting, fishing, and recreational guides, commercial fishermen, daily boat renters, and merchant mariners. Furthermore, boaters who have taken the course in another state do not have to retake the class in Maine.

Maine’s training course follows NASBLA standards and covers topics such as boating safety, terminology, equipment, trip planning, navigational rules, Maine laws, emergency preparedness, and the like, said Steve Barr, regional recreation safety coordinator for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“A lot of folks say ‘Wow, we didn’t realize boating was this detailed or this in-depth,’” Barr said. “We’re giving an overview that serves as a foundation to give understanding and to say, ‘You know what, I never thought of that, maybe I should tell somebody where I’m going,’ or know how to use a VHF radio, or who do I contact if I’m in danger on the water, or what is my duty to other boats.”

Of course, boat owners of all ages—not just those born in 1999 and later—might benefit from some boating training, said Derek Seehagen, director of training for the Maine Boating Academy in Yarmouth. The academy offers beginner, intermediate, and advanced on-the-water training. The academy’s training does not satisfy the requirements for the new training law, but is an option for those who want to improve their boating skills, thereby making their boating experiences safer and more enjoyable.

The Maine Boating Academy launched in 2023 and had 75 customers its first year, providing instruction on boat owners’ own boats or on the Academy’s 26-foot center-console boat powered with a 250-hp engine. The most in-demand training is for close-quarters maneuvering in and around marinas and docks and to learn how to operate safely with tides and currents.

Maine’s new law is a great step forward toward making Maine’s waters safer, Seehagen said. 

“We’re catching up here in Maine,” he said. “This is very good. It applies a very basic level of knowledge to somebody with no knowledge. When people are trained and feel comfortable and confident on the water, we all remain on boats longer.”  

Clarke Canfield is a longtime journalist and author based in South Portland.

For a detailed description of the law and where training is offered:

Visit the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website at in the Boating Safety section.

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