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North Carolina should require boating training, experts say

Boaters enjoy time on the water near Ramsey Creek County Park at Lake Norman on Monday.
Boaters enjoy time on the water near Ramsey Creek County Park at Lake Norman on Monday. ddeaton@charlotteobserver.com

Boating groups say North Carolina should require safety education training for all operators after three boating fatalities over the July 4 weekend.

State law requires safety training only for boat drivers born in 1988 or later. The law also forbids local governments from enacting their own ordinances.

North Carolina is one of 26 states that require boating courses only for people born after a certain date. No training was required until 2009.

The Lake Norman Marine Commission says training should be required for all boat drivers, regardless of age.

“I know people who grew up on the lake and feel like they know what they’re doing,” said executive director Ron Shoultz. “If you feel like you’re safe on the water, you should be able to take a test and pass it.”

Twenty of the 23 fatal boating accidents in North Carolina last year involved drivers 30 and older – who are exempt from the safety training, state Wildlife Resources Commission data shows.

“If you were out on the lake this weekend you’d have seen that a lot of people need some basic understanding of how a boat works who were born well before Jan. 1, 1988,” said Steve Stuart, past commander of the Lake Norman Sail and Power Squadron, whose volunteers offer 200 boating courses a year.

Not giving right-of-way to other boats. Skiing in heavily trafficked channels. Passing and following too closely – “just the basic rules of the road,” Stewart said.

Mandatory training for more or all boaters is the best way to make the water safer, said a 2010 survey of education coordinators for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

North Carolina has logged 21 boating-related deaths for this year, compared with 27 for all of 2014, the state Wildlife Resources Commission reports.

Mikki Williams, 41, of Charlotte boats often with her girlfriends and has never had a problem. Williams said she learned to drive her boat from friends.

“I mean, it’s a pontoon. It goes 20 miles an hour,” she said Monday as she prepared to head out on Lake Norman from Westport Marina in Denver.

Gary Vineyard, 62, visiting Lake Norman for a holiday weekend from Charleston, W. Va., said he learned boating safety when he was younger. More boats on the water during busy times leave more room for something to go wrong.

“It’s just a matter of being diligent,” Vineyard said. “I like to think we do a pretty good job, but you never know until something happens.”

Sheyenne Marshall, 17, of Concord, was knee-boarding on Lake Norman when a trailing pontoon boat hit her Saturday evening. Pontoon driver Keith Owen Cerven, 49, of Mooresville was charged with boating while intoxicated.

A few hours later, on Mountain Island Lake, a boat carrying four people hit a rock formation. Daniel Schmidt, 60, of Charlotte and Jennifer Schmidt, 29, died at the scene and two other people were hospitalized.

North Carolina has logged 21 boating-related deaths for this year, Wildlife Resources Commission reports. The U.S. Coast Guard says the state had 26 deaths last year, fourth-highest nationally, among states reporting figures to the Coast Guard.

“We are at a point where if we stay at this rate, we’re going to exceed last year’s and that is worrisome,” said commission spokesman Geoff Cantrell.

Commission officers checked 634 boats over the July 4 holiday, charging 26 drivers with operating while impaired and issuing 206 citations. Last year, a check of 1,109 boats turned up 31 impaired-boating charges and 406 citations.

Boat drivers who didn’t take the required safety course are usually given warnings, Cantrell said.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, North Carolina’s 386,000 registered vessels ranks 10th nationally. It fatality rate of 6.8 per 100,000 registrations ranks 15th.

Although the boating accidents in North Carolina dipped from 2013 to 2014, from 139 to 124, deaths and injuries increased. Deaths jumped 63 percent from 16 to 26, according to an Observer analysis of Coast Guard data. Injuries increased from 90 to 92.

Lake Norman’s 12 accidents last year ranked second in the state behind the Intracoastal Waterway. One person died on the lake in 2014, data show. In that case, a 36-year-old man dove in to help a person who was struggling after trying to retrieve a hat.

Operator inattention and inexperience were the leading causes of accidents and deaths on North Carolina waters. Inattention caused 21 accidents and three deaths last year, data show. Inexperience caused 16 accidents and three deaths.

In one case, a 42-year-old boater tied the anchor line to his leg and was tossed overboard when the boat capsized. In another instance last year, a 57-year-old man fell in after urinating off the back of a moving boat. Both men drowned. Gavin Off and Langston Taylor contributed.

Henderson: 704-358-5051;

Twitter: @bhender

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