Petition grows against bill to mandate course and license for kayak, paddleboard use

unsplash-logoJoshua Ness

A House bill aimed at increasing safety for anyone using a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard is making waves among water sport enthusiasts.

The bill would place the same rules that apply for operating motorboats on human-powered watercrafts. To rent or buy a paddle-operated vessel, a person would need to take a boating safety course, pass an exam, and obtain a boater education card, similar to needing a driver’s license to drive a car.

Rep. John Lovick (D-Mill Creek), a sponsor of House Bill 1018, helped write the bill as a response to what he views as a crisis on the water.

“We are fifth in the nation for boating safety fatalities. … If we’re having so many fatalities on the water, we should do something about that,” he said, adding, “That’s the idea behind it, to make sure that people get the training that they need, get the education they need to stay safe on the water.”

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He pointed out that in 2020, 13 people statewide died while doing paddle-sports. This is 13 too many deaths, he said. A former Coast Guard member, Lovick added that each water rescue costs the government about $40,000.

“We really believe we can save lives through legislation like this,” he said. “If anything, this last year has taught us that every life matters.”

Lovick did not know how many people died while operating or being a passenger on larger, motor-powered vessels last year.

Despite the safety concerns, an effort is underway to stop the bill in its tracks. Since Friday, more than 1,400 people have signed a petition against the bill.

Leading the petition effort is Scott Holley, president of Eddyline Kayaks in Burlington, who fears that the measure will end up being a gatekeeper for water access. While many people cannot afford to keep a sailboat or speedboat, renting a kayak for the afternoon on Lake Washington or at Deception Pass is a relatively affordable possibility for people, Holley said.

“Because of the availability of low-cost rental and purchase options, it really is accessible to people with a lower income,” he said.

But the time and financial commitment of each family member having to take a safety course, an exam, and get a license will add enough hoops to jump through that they could create a barrier, Holley said.

“Our worry is that putting potentially expensive license and registration processes in place, along with having to purchase a card, is going to disproportionately impact lower-income participants,” he said.

In addition to the financial accessibility, he pointed out that since operating a paddleboard or kayak is an individual sport that is done outdoors, this is one activity that is still available during the pandemic.

“During the COVID era, there are a lot fewer ways you can safely recreate,” Holley said. “Paddle sports are one of them.”

For Lovick, however, that is all the more reason to pass the bill now.

“People are going to be out there on the water a heck of a lot more, having, all of us, been stuck in our homes for 11 months,” he said. “I think this is a great time to do it.”

The current bill requires the same boating safety course required for larger vessels; it does not specify if new courses would be created just for paddle sports. Holley said he is all for teaching people to safely use paddle-powered vessels, but a safety course for motorboats would not be appropriate for this.

Lovick said the bill is still going through the drafting process, and he welcomes input from everyone in the boating community.

He did say that enforcement of this bill would not involve a water version of highway patrol — so you do not need to be worried that you’ll be pulled over while taking a kayak across Lake Union.

“We’re not trying to be punitive on this,” Lovick said. “We’re just trying to make sure we do everything we can to keep people safe.”