Richard Has Your Back

By Scott Croft

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"We'll get you, Schwartz!" Those were the angry words directed at Richard Schwartz in 1969 by a boating industry lobbyist in the heat of a Capitol Hill debate on boating safety and consumer rights. Schwartz had angered some in the room by telling lawmakers that boat owners were being targeted and unfairly ticketed by the U.S. Coast Guard for improper engine compartment ventilation — on brand-new boats just delivered from the factory! In his testimony, the BoatUS founder insisted that such outrageous treatment of boaters by industry and government had to stop.

Things changed significantly after that. Lawmakers invited Schwartz to help write the landmark Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, giving the U.S. Coast Guard responsibility to hold manufacturers accountable for Coast Guard standards. They also created a boat-defect law, and created the Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety. "That was our act," says Schwartz. "We did that, and I'm very proud of it. There used to be more than a thousand boating deaths a year. In 2008, it was 709, while the number of boats on the water has increased by several million."

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Schwartz remains a guiding force at the headquarters of the organization he founded. He still weighs in on policy decisions, government affairs work, and vigorously keeps company priorities focused on the rights of boaters and members. Devoted to the details, he hasn’t missed a U.S. Power Squadron national meeting in decades.

Born in New York's Bronx in 1929, Schwartz wasn't from a boating family. Other than an occasional rowboat ride with his dad at the Bronx Zoo, boat ownership didn't come until years later, after he graduated from Princeton, and Yale Law School, became a government lawyer, worked for an international marketing company, and not until after his fledgling association became sustainable. "Back then, in the '60s, my first wife, Sally-Jane Heit, was an actress, and I produced her cabaret show on the top floor of the Georgetown restaurant, Rive Gauche. It paid our overhead as I worked on BoatUS I had a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of tense times. The idea that BoatUS could fail really scared me."

But the organization grew steadily, thanks to Schwartz's vigilance, and his ability to identify new business opportunities. Forever known at BoatUS national headquarters for pinching pennies, Schwartz's first boat was a small, used runabout; and he built his own marine railway on the Potomac river to save money on slip fees. This frugalness is a habit most boating families can relate to. In the early days, Schwartz says there was a public misperception that all boaters were wealthy, making them targets of government revenue schemes. "Even Congress called us 'fat cat' boaters," he says, "but we knew darn well that for every 'yacht' out there, there were hundreds of families with small inexpensive boats."

Starting with President Johnson in 1966, Schwartz has piloted BoatUS through seven presidential administrations. Then, as now, he says BoatUS's core mission has been fighting unfair fees, taxes, and regulations that single out boat owners. While lobbying kept the Association in the limelight, Schwartz also offered innovative services to the boating public. Until BoatUS came along, recreational boat insurance policies were written in language meant for commercial ships — centuries old, unintelligible copy from Lloyd's of London. The Association was the first to write policies in plain English, adding unique features and creating today's highly regarded BoatUS Catastrophe Team to handle major disasters such as hurricanes. "We're the only company I know with a team like this. Within 24 hours, we assemble people, cranes, tractor-trailers, and equipment from around the country, and set up an office on site. We have our people there the next morning." His desire to offer insurance directly to boat owners meant he could control the product and service. "Other membership organizations that offer insurance do it through a third party. I don't like that. When you call us, I want our BoatUS staff to answer the phone. We are responsible to members."

BoatUS retail stores started as a "Boating Buy of the Month" in the Association newsletter, selling just one product by mail order or customer pickup at Alexandria headquarters. Distributors refused to sell products to the new organization, so Schwartz focused on "orphans" — competing products new to the U.S. market that other marine distributors refused to carry. Schwartz made it a priority to attend every one of 67 retail store openings, receiving members with free soda and hot dogs — always requiring staff to have sauerkraut on hand — "while my wife Beth, a senior government official, went around offering customers coffee." In 2003, BoatUS sold its retail-product division to West Marine.

Schwartz wasn't always right, as in the case for private on-the-water towing services, which he initially fought, because he felt the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary was doing a good job assisting their fellow boaters. But the Auxiliary was ordered to stop towing in the mid '80s and BoatUS stepped in to fill the void. TowBoatUS focused on improving towing services, and eventually added Vessel Assist on the West Coast. Two of his proudest creations are the member-supported BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water, which has a full-time staff of eight working on creating safety and environmental programs, and conducting product tests; and the BoatUS Consumer Affairs Division, which has mediated hundreds of cases for members and, he says, "reopened the lines of communication between the boater and boatbuilder."

As BoatUS grew, Richard could afford to put new engines in his old boat. "They cost more than the boat itself," he remembers. "I had a boat worth $30,000, but never changed the insurance policy to reflect the upgrade. Then Hurricane Isabel destroyed the boat. It was a total loss. I was in the insurance business, and only had it insured for half its value! It took me awhile to live that down." Today, he has a couple of Sea Doos, a 21-foot Hurricane deck boat for water skiing, a 22-foot Chris-Craft, a 44-foot custom aluminum catamaran, and he's out boating most weekends.

Richard Schwartz has made a contribution. Boating deaths are significantly lower today than in the 1960s. Consumer services have become more transparent; and BoatU.S., the industry, and politicians now routinely come to the table together when important boating legislation is being debated. "Today the industry is more responsive," says Schwartz, "and I'd like to think we gave some good nudges to help bring about that change."

There's always more to do. Schwartz laments the shrinking of family time for American boating: "Parents do a lot of running around these days, taking their kids to games on weekends, instead of enjoying time together on their boats. I'd like to see less soccer, and more kids joining Sea Scouts." Homeland security issues are an ongoing concern, preserving boating access on our coasts is a constant challenge, and unfair taxes must always be questioned and fought. Schwartz and the BoatUS team work on these issues every day. But he believes that the horizon still holds great promise for boaters. BoatU.S. has launched new services for fishermen with the BoatUS Angler membership.

Developing boating education programs, and staying proactive in federal and state issues remain top priorities for Schwartz — along with spending time with his grandchildren, and enjoying taking Beth for rides in their rumble-seat Chris-Craft.

From his first major success in 1971, helping to draft the Federal Boat Safety Act, Schwartz says, "We haven't let up. We helped repeal the user-fee tax, the tax for recreational boat diesel fuel, the luxury tax, the FCC VHF fee, and on and on. The Clean Boating Act of 2008 wouldn't have passed without our BoatUS government affairs staff. That's what I love about this organization, that we can do good things for people and pay our staff at the same time."  

— Published: November/December 2009