Safe on the water: Coast Guard Auxiliary offers seamanship classes

Lance Shearer

Forget hurricanes, sharks, lee shores and uncharted reefs. The scariest thing for boaters is other, inexperienced boaters, ignorant skippers who endanger themselves, others aboard their boats, and anyone near them.

For many years in Florida, the only documentation you needed to operate a motor vessel was a credit card or the cash to buy or rent it; no instruction or certification necessary. This is the reason experienced boaters give a little extra room to any boat with a phone number on the side of the hull. Requirements are being phased in, but there’s more than just the legal aspect. It only makes sense to understand what you are doing as the captain of a boat, to be able to handle it in a manner that shows you know what you are doing, and be ready to deal with any of the myriad of things that can go wrong.

File: Arne Kelsey of the Coast Guard Auxiliary promotes boating safety.

Coast Guard Auxiliary to the rescue! This group, a civilian arm of the United States Coast Guard, offers a variety of boating instruction and courses to help local boaters learn about boating, and particularly boating in Southwest Florida. On July 10, they are beginning a new class of what Joe Riccio, staff officer for public education with Marco Island’s USCGA Flotilla 95, called “the most comprehensive basic boating education course offered.”

The Auxiliary’s Boating Skills and Seamanship course begins on July 10 and runs for four weeks, with courses on Monday and Thursday evenings from 7 to 9:30. The class is ideal for those just “getting their feet wet” as boaters, and does not assume prior marine knowledge, but also makes an excellent refresher course for experienced boaters who would like to become current on recent advances in maritime issues.

A variety of instructors, including Ricccio, Flotilla 95 commander Doug Bartlett, past commander Randy Harris, and licensed captain and Coast Guard coxswain Laurie Harris will teach 12 modules, including boat handling, rules of the road, safety, navigation, lines and knots, use of the marine radio, and dealing with weather on the water. A Florida-specific section covers local and state boating laws and regulations.

File: A Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission law enforcement officer performs a vessel safety check on a boat.

“We teach them a lot about boating around Marco Island,” including the “red right return” rule, in which mariners keep red markers to starboard (the boat’s right) when returning to port, said Riccio. “But we’re on an island – eventually you’re heading out to sea again,” necessitating added vigilance on the skipper’s part.

As it happens, the spot where the markers switch over, and “red right return” becomes “green right entering” is just south of the Jolley Bridge, and could have been planned by an evil sea god, Neptune in a bad mood, to challenge the boater. Just as the markers reverse, the channel takes a sharp bend to the right, and boaters proceeding straight are heading over a sandbar. With enough tide and a shallow draft, you can luck out and cross without incident, but you are still responsible for not exceeding the speed limit, which is substantially lower outside the channel, and law enforcement has been known to hang out nearby, in the marine equivalent of a speed trap.

“Usually, they just give warnings, and take the opportunity to check if you have the proper safety equipment,” said Riccio – but it does highlight the value of knowing what you are doing when operating a vessel.

Upon satisfactory completion of the course, students will qualify to receive the state-issued Florida Boater Safety Identification Card. For anyone born before 1988, this is a courtesy and optional, but “the card is mandatory for all boat operators born on or after January 1, 1988,” says the Florida Dept. of Motor Vehicles website. No one under the age of 18 may rent a PWC (personal watercraft or jet-ski), and no one under 14 may operate one in Florida waters, or operate a motorized boat with an adult on board.

Taking the Boating Skills & Seamanship class in the summer means you will likely have a smaller class size, as the course during season often maxes out at 28. Along with the July session, it will be offered again in October, and then not until January.

Classes take place at the USCGA Flotilla 95 station at Caxambas Park, 905 Collier Court. The $50 fee includes a $28 textbook. Additional courses offer the Boater’s Local Knowledge – Marco Island and Backwater Editions, going further into the specifics of navigating area waterways, and Suddenly in Command, which is ideal for “first mates,” often wives, who have to take over when something happens to the skipper.

For more information or to sign up, call 239-384-7416, send email to, or go online to