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The Recreational Boaters of California: Advocates since 1968

California ranks 4th when it comes to registered boats among our 50 states. Luckily Golden State boaters have a strong voice thanks to their regional advocacy group, a BoatU.S. partner.

Aerial photo of the San Diego skyline on San Diego Bay during a bright and sunny day

The San Diego skyline on San Diego Bay. California is a perennial Top 5 state for pleasure boats with 645,951 registered in 2020. 

The state of California has 840 miles of continuous coastline and upward of 700,000 registered recreational boats. Because of its varied geography, our nation’s third largest state is home to sizeable contingents of powerboaters and sailors, both offshore and inland. This divergent bunch of boaters are lucky to have an impressive 55-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization that’s kind of like their own mini-BoatU.S.

The Recreational Boaters of California (RBOC) was formed in 1968 and advocates year-round on legislation and regulations at the state government level. The group is led by 19 boating officers and directors from all over the state (nine from the north, nine from the south, and one from BoatU.S.). This setup enables local issues to reach the state level more quickly so RBOC can lobby lawmakers on California boaters’ positions on legislation and regulations.

“The officers are all volunteers, and they’re boaters,” says new RBOC president Debrenia Madison Smith. “The group has been fortunate over the years to have experienced and knowledgeable boaters dedicate their time and talent to our organization. The common theme is the desire to make a difference, improving boating in some tangible way,” she says, noting members often become active locally on a particular issue, then bring that local knowledge to RBOC’s professional lobbyist.

Smith says the 2023 California legislative body provides fresh opportunity to bring recreational boating to the attention of individual members of the Legislature. “The combination of term limits, open primaries, and the once-per-decade drawing of district maps has led to one-third of the 120 legislators being brand new this year,” she says. “This presents new opportunities to familiarize members with boating, and we often find that they already have a connection.”

Proclamation of recognition presentation at the California Boating Congress

California Assembly Member Marie Waldron (center) presented a proclamation of recognition to the California Boating Congress at its April gathering. David Kennedy (far right) of BoatU.S. and Debrenia Madison Smith of RBOC (right of Waldron) attended.

Beyond the day-to-day issues other states face (abandoned boats and dredging), and California’s various local issues (that can have national implications) like copper bottom paint in San Diego Bay, Marina del Rey, and Newport; or a water routing project that threatens navigation on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – RBOC is currently engaged in a much larger fight.

“The basic issue over the last 20 years or so is that revenues into waterways’ betterment have dwindled,” says Jerry Desmond Jr., RBOC’s professional representative at the Sacramento capital. Much like at the national level where the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund returns taxes on gasoline and certain marine products to fund programs and services that directly benefit boaters, California has its own Harbors and Watercraft Revolving Fund (HWRF), which is currently operating at a $20 million annual deficit. California boaters pay more than $100 million each year in fuel taxes to the state, yet only 14%, or about $15 million, is allocated to HWRF.

“All of those marine fuel taxes used to go to the HWRF,” Desmond says, explaining that less and less is being allocated to programs and services that benefit boaters. “It’s been happening slowly over 20 years.”

Over this period, the state prioritized the general fund and state parks as recipients, he says. This was further enabled when the department became a division within State Parks in 2013. When the state increased fuel taxes in 2017, funds attributable to boats were directed over to a new State Parks and Recreation Fund. Desmond notes that one of the biggest setbacks to state boaters came in 2012, when a government streamlining plan moved its Department of Boating and Waterways (DBW) from a stand-alone to another division of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Another issue was placing beach erosion and replenishment program costs into DBW’s budget in 1999. With sea levels now rising at a faster rate, that need is forecast to significantly increase in the years ahead.

“Shoreline erosion is important to and benefits the vast majority of Californians and should have funding resources and an organizational structure that reflects that reality, rather than funded by boaters,” argues Desmond. “We’ve been trying to get that budget item transferred for years.” Programs and efforts that could use additional funding include launch ramps, and ridding the waterways of abandoned recreational vessels, he adds.

White truck towing a white boat along a highway coastline

California’s wide coastline, bays, and waterways offer ample opportunity for trailer boaters to explore new on-the-water experiences. 

Leading up to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s anticipated release of an update to his $297 billion budget proposal in May, RBOC submitted recommendations on boating taxes and fees, including:

  • A comprehensive report on the economic impact of recreational boating in California to provide data on developments and trends that can inform policy decisions.
  • Enhanced participation and financial contribution of non-pleasure boating stakeholders who benefit from DBW’s programs and services, including the increasing number of nonmotorized watercraft that use state waterways and are increasingly engaged by boating law enforcement, and government agencies that benefit from DBW’s ongoing aquatic invasive species program that benefits commercial shipping.
  • Increase the statutory authority and role of the commission to provide not only advice but also consent on DBW’s loans and grants from HWRF.
  • A return of a significant amount of the motor vehicle fuel taxes directly generated by recreational boaters to HWRF.
  • As appropriate, a vessel registration fee adjustment that is reasonable and that corresponds to the revenues and savings that are recommended by RBOC. At press time, the governor announced that registration fees would be raised from $10 to $40 per year beginning January 1, 2024.

“Boating in the state of California is a tremendous asset, and we are advocating to enhance the state efforts to dedicate boater taxes and fees directly to opportunities for Californians to get onto the water for an enjoyable and healthful experience,” Madison-Smith says.

Whenever possible, BoatU.S. engages in advocacy efforts with RBOC, says David Kennedy, manager of BoatU.S. Government Affairs, who sits on the RBOC Executive Committee. In April, Kennedy attended the annual California Boating Congress, where the marine industry and boating community visit the state capital to lobby directly to legislators.

“RBOC and BoatU.S. are partners in a sustained presence for boaters in Sacramento,” Kennedy says. “We’re working together to achieve a more equitable return of the fuel taxes paid by boaters to the HWRF fund, where it belongs.”

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Rich Armstrong

Senior Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A journalist by training, BoatUS Magazine Senior Editor Rich Armstrong has worked in TV news, and at several newspapers, then spent 18 years as a top editor at other boating publications. He’s built a stellar reputation in the marine industry as one of the most thorough reporters in our business. At BoatUS Magazine, Rich handles everything from boat and product innovation and late-breaking news, to compelling feature stories, boat reviews, and features on people and places. The New Jersey shore and lakes of lower New York defined Rich's childhood. But when he bought a 21-foot Four Winns deck boat and introduced his young family to the Connecticut River, his love for the world of boats flourished from there.