42 Percent Jump in Boaters — Limited Instruction — Spurs Local Complaints About Safety and Broken Rules Across Southeast Connecticut

“We have many new customers and the phone is ringing off the hook for boat rentals which we don’t even do,” said Larry Trickett of Guilford Boat Yards. “Whoever is able to do boat rentals is making a killing this year.”

After three months of stay-at-home orders and most indoor activities still limited, water sport activity is up throughout the state. According to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, 42 percent more people were issued a certificate of personal watercraft operation between January 1 and July 23 of this year compared with the same period last year. In total, that’s 2,649 new boaters and more are coming.

“All DEEP-sponsored online safe boating/personal watercraft classes through August 6 are full,” said Will Healey, spokesperson for the department.

With new boaters and more boaters comes boat repairs.

At Guilford Boat Yards, boat repairs are up more than 35 percent compared to last year and the supply chain has been exhausted, Trickett said. Across the country, Mercury suppliers are back ordered up to 15 days.  At Westbrook Power Sports, the entire rental inventory is almost always out on the water, according to Dave Adamiec.

“We’ve had a huge increase in sales and rentals, especially with all this COVID going on, it’s just exploded,” Adamiec said.

But 2,649 new boaters – many operating rentals due to delays at the Department of Moror Vehicles – has led to what local residents say is an increase in unsafe boating practices.

“With all the constraints the virus has put on the state and paper work shuffles, I’m afraid that some things are falling through the cracks,” said Grant Westerson, the Marine Officer at Old Saybrook Police Department. “There are lots of people riding these things that don’t have experience.”

Instead of the usual in-person classes, since May 6, Governor Ned Lamont has allowed the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to provide online safe boating courses during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that is a lot easier to obtain a license than usual.

“As far as knowing the waterways, it’s a lot more difficult to understand something online than in person,” Adamiec said. “It’s important that you understand that looking at a screen isn’t going to cut it.”

Residents of the Connecticut River Valley say that they have also noticed increasing boat activity, in particular, jet skis that they say are not obeying the rules.

Peter Eliel, a resident along Selden Cove, said that he has seen numerous jet skis failing to abide by no-wake limits in the cove and creek.

“Many jet skiers totally ignore the no-wake rule,” Eliel said. “There are buoys to indicate the change, but new jet skiers may not know what the signs mean.”

Eliel said that he would like to see the state post large “No Wake Zone” signs at the entrance to the Selden Cove, but previous efforts at Whalebone Cove — and a small posted “Protected Area” sign there — leave him doubting there will be any change.

According to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the department, state police, municipal law enforcement and the Coast Guard are all out enforcing boating safety.

According to Westerson, policing of the waterways has not increased compared to past years despite the increase in boaters.

“Policing is at the same level that it’s always been. It’s pretty difficult to ramp up your policing and supervision this quickly,” he said. “This experience has surprised a lot of people … but it makes sense because people can’t do anything else anymore, including in their own backyard.”

According to both Trickett and Adamiec, the surge in boaters came all at once as the temperature rose, the rain stopped and social distancing restrictions were lifted.

The sheer number of new boaters without experience, Adamiec said, is concerning, especially after the recent deaths of four individuals who were boating or swimming in the state in June.

“There is an inundation of people who are trying to tow skis, tubes, ride jet skis and people go out there without their PDFs,” he said. “It’s really sad.”

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