Most boaters under age 25 will be required to pass an education and safety course before January 2024 to operate on Maine’s lakes and rivers because of a bill passed by the state Legislature this year.
Maine is an outlier among states by currently not requiring boating licenses. The proposed law requires operators of motor boats and jet skis to be educated on state boating laws, wildlife and environmental impacts, or risk fines and misdemeanor criminal charges for noncompliance.
Optional boater education courses are already offered online and in person. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife recognizes four online courses and boaters will need to pass one to be certified under the proposed law. A six-hour, in-person course is also offered in Portland.
The proposed law is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2024 and apply to anyone born in 1999 or later. It faces one final legislative hurdle before going to Gov. Janet Mills for her signature.
“Sometimes the best way to teach adults new things is by making sure that younger people understand the thing that we’re trying to learn,” said Rep. Jessica Fay (D-Raymond), who sponsored the bill that gained the support of lake associations, environmental and wildlife groups, and lakeside property owners.
Spending summers at her family camp on Sebago Lake, Fay learned to operate a boat from her father and grandfather. Over the years she has seen more recreational boaters come to Maine and operate unsafely — sometimes striking loons and rocking smaller watercraft.
“For a lot of my adult life it was a head-scratcher to me how people could be so unaware of what safe boating looks like,” said Fay.
She concluded the paths forward to improving safe boating came down to knowledge and education.
Under Maine’s proposed new law, anyone born in or after 1999 will need to pass a boater education course before driving a boat of 25 horsepower or higher or to operate a personal watercraft — such as a Jet Ski — on inland waters. The state’s minimum age to operate a Jet Ski will remain 16.
Boaters who violate the new law would be fined between $100 and $500 per offense, and those with three or more violations in a five-year period could be charged with a Class E crime.
Those under age 25 aren’t the demographic of boaters getting in the most accidents or causing the most fatalities, according to national data collected by the Coast Guard.
By first applying the law to children and young adults, they can model safe boating practices to their parents, Fay said. Similar to how recycling was taught in schools and children’s behavior was mirrored at home, she said.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which enforces boating laws on the state’s inland waters, sees the bill as an important change. The department initially sought to have all state boaters complete an educational course by 2027, regardless of their age, but agreed to the compromise lawmakers reached to start with boaters born in and after 1999.
Pushback from a sportsman’s group about public access to legislative debate, and concern among lawmakers about requiring people who are decades removed from high school to take and pass an exam factored into the decision to limit the bill to younger boaters.
The law will only apply to inland waters. A stakeholder group of recreational sportsmen, marine industries and the Department of Marine Resources that oversees Maine’s coastal waters will also be formed, the law states, to make recommendations to the Legislature on how to potentially implement the law on tidal waters.
Lawmakers intend to review the study group’s recommendations next year.
The Department of Marine Resources was not prepared to answer questions about the possibility of expanding the law to include tidal waters at this time.
“We look forward to taking part in the stakeholder group to ensure that all issues are considered before a legal mandate for boater safety training for coastal waters is established,” a spokesman for the department wrote in an email.
The House voted 91-39 in favor of the bill on March 31 and gave its final approval on April 7. Senators unanimously passed it on April 5.
Lawmakers will take one final vote to enact the bill before sending it to Mills.