BoatUS Reports

News From The World Of American Boating

Edited by Chris Landers

Gulf Water Rising

A recent study of the Gulf of Mexico found that seasonal changes in water levels have gotten larger in recent decades along the eastern shore of the Gulf. Summer high-water levels have been higher, and winter low levels lower since 1990, according to a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in January. Researchers tracked Gulf water levels from 1900 to 2011, and found that the increased summer levels "have almost doubled the risk of hurricane-induced flooding since 1990 for the eastern and northeastern Gulf of Mexico coastlines."

Photo of Gulf Coast waterwayPhoto: Pat Ford

Global sea levels have risen around two inches since 1993, but the Eastern Gulf of Mexico shows an additional two-inch rise. The change was not found in other parts of the Gulf. In a statement from the American Geophysical Union, which publishes the journal, lead author Thomas Wahl said that in addition to storm surge, the increase in variation could have an effect on sensitive ecosystems along the Gulf Coast. Wahl and the other researchers found that changes in air temperature and atmospheric pressure drove the changing water levels.

Bringing Up The "Katrina Babies"

The Mississippi Coast Yachting Association is the birthplace of yacht racing on the Gulf Coast, with the first regattas dating back to 1849. Its members include two of the five oldest yacht clubs in the United States (Pass Christian and Biloxi), and over the last nine years since Hurricane Katrina, it has built a stable of state-of-the-art yacht clubs. Today the state is investing nearly $100 million of federal money into public marinas and infrastructure.

They've made their junior sailing and boating safety programs an immediate priority, efforts that are paying off. Gulfport Yacht Club's longtime Sailing Director Sam Vazquez was heavily involved from day one. "Within a few months of the storm, we had our juniors racing up in Atlanta on borrowed Optis. By the next summer, we had repaired or replaced our fleet of small sailboats that include Optis, Vanguards, 420s, and Flying Scots, and had restarted our sailing camp with 120 kids."

Nine years out, the junior sailors on the Mississippi coast are all now considered "Katrina Babies." All they have known is a coast in recovery and rebuilding mode. And after seeing the importance of getting these kids out on the water — if simply to bring a semblance of normality to the community — the clubs on the coast reached out to local high schools. Today, there are six high-school sailing teams actively competing and their regular races are drawing in high-school teams from throughout the Northern Gulf Coast. The Galloway Regatta in Gulfport recently hosted 70 junior and high-school boats ranging from Optimists to V-15s.

"We made the kids a priority because we had to." Vazquez says. "These Katrina Babies are the future of the sport on the Mississippi Coast."

Adventure License For New York

In an effort to promote recreational activities in the Empire state, Governor Andrew Cuomo has made things a little easier for boaters and avid fishermen with the introduction of the Lifetime Adventure License Series.

Residents who purchase any of the lifetime licenses for hunting and fishing, which range from $460 to $750, can consolidate all of their licenses and permits on their driver's license. The Adventure driver's license will feature icons such as a deer for hunting, a fish for angling, a bobcat paw for trapping, and an anchor for a boating safety certificate. For boaters, this means one more piece of paper you don't have to carry on your boat if you carry your driver's license. As a reminder, New York passed a law late last year that requires all boaters born after May 1, 1996, to earn and carry with them a boating safety certificate. However, until an online boater safety course is approved for the new state requirement, boaters must take an eight-hour U.S. Power Squadrons, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, or State Parks and Recreation classroom course. Once they have passed the course and received their certificate, they must provide it to the New York state DMV.

"If we approve an online boating safety course, boaters won't need to have to show the paper certificate," said New York State Boating Law Administrator Brian Kemf. "Whichever online course provider gets approved would electronically transfer the info to our DMV."

To raise awareness, the state will send 1 million letters to current recreational drivers license holders and more information on the new program can be obtained at

Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York, a grassroots organization established to protect the parks, says, "Outdoor recreation currently contributes more than $11 billion to the state's economy each year."

Bounty Investigation Released

The investigation into the sinking of the tall ship HMS Bounty in October 2012 places the blame for the loss on Bounty Captain Robin Walbridge's decision to set sail during Hurricane Sandy. Walbridge and another crew member were lost with the ship. The recently released review of the sinking by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found a host of problems with the boat. According to crew testimony in the report, Bounty took on water "even in the best conditions."

The ship, constructed for use in the 1962 Marlon Brando movie "Mutiny on the Bounty," was certified as a "moored attraction vessel" by the U.S. Coast Guard, which meant that while the boat could be exhibited in port, it could not carry passengers. Away from the dock, Bounty was treated as a recreational vessel under the law.

A few days after leaving New London, Connecticut, for St. Petersburg, Florida, the Coast Guard was called for assistance. Of 16 crew members, 14 were rescued. The body of deckhand Claudene Christian was found 10 hours later, and a search for Walbridge was called off after two days. Last year, Christian's mother, also named Claudene, filed a $90 million suit over her daughter's death against the owners of the Bounty, alleging that its owners were responsible by their "willful, callous, and reckless conduct."

The HMS Bounty Organization also received criticism from the NTSB, which said the "lack of effective safety oversight by the organization" was a contributing factor to the sinking.

Vessels Of Freedom, Harbors Of Healing ... Boats

So goes the chorus of country singer Kenny Chesney's song, "Boats." The artist has made no secret of his love for getting out on the water. He's featured boats in music videos over the years and keeps a sizable Sea Ray at his island home in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. So it's little surprise that he'd sign up as an honorary board member on the Coastal Conservation Association's (CCA) national marine habitat program, which supports projects that revitalize critical habitat and marine ecosystems.

Chesney, who has sold in excess of a million tickets on his last 12 tours, has always been drawn to the water. "I've always felt a certain sense of peace and freedom on the boat that I don't get on the tour bus. On the road, there's always something to do and someplace to be. My life is full of expectations. But on the boat I can take a deep breath and be myself," he has said.

Hear "My Papa's in the Classic"

Hear Casey Ashley's "Fisherman"

He's not the only boater with an inclination toward music. Bassmaster Classic angler Casey Ashley is another who regularly swaps the lake for the studio. Not that all anglers are exclusively into country music. This year's Classic contender Tim Johnston's son Skeeter was so inspired when his father made the competition that he created a rap song especially for him, the thumping "My Papa's in the Classic." For more on this year's Bassmaster Classic, see, "42 Hours In Fishville".

California Drought Continues

  • Photo of the Oroville Bidwell Bridge July 2011
    Photo of the Oroville Bidwell Bridge January 2014
Photos from July 2011 (left) and January 2014 show the drought's effect on Lake Oroville. (Photos courtesy: California Dept. of Water Resources)

It's been a bad 12 months for inland California boaters (to say nothing of the farmers and everyone who relies on the state's water supply). Last year brought the lowest rainfall in the state's history, and in January 2014, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency as 67 percent of the state labored under extreme conditions. Lakes and reservoirs were at a fraction of their usual level, and the winter snowpack — 12 percent of normal in the Sierras — didn't suggest the situation would improve in the spring. February and March storms brought water levels up, but not enough to end the drought or refill Northern California reservoirs.

Small Sailboat, Big Stage

Photo from the book, Victura: The Kennedys, a SailboatA young Ted Kennedy (left) in the days before mandatory life jackets for kids. From the book, Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea, by James W. Graham, $29.95.

A new book offers some insight into the dynamics of the Kennedy family and their relationship with boats and the water. Victura, a 25-foot sloop, bought shortly after the family's move to Hyannis Port, played a supporting role in their triumphs and tragedies over the years. Purchased in 1932 when Jack was 15, he and brothers Joe, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy spent hours competing on her every summer, later joined by their younger brother, Teddy. She saw Joe, Jr. and Jack ranked among the best collegiate sailors in New England, at the time, and later their sister Eunice emerged as a fierce sailing competitor, the equal of her brothers. It's not Victura's first brush with fame. She was credited with helping win an election after Life Magazine featured photos of Jack and Jackie Kennedy on Victura's bow, helping define the Kennedy "brand" in the 1950s, and as president, Jack allegedly doodled sketches of her in the Oval Office.

Sailing Away To Join The Circus

Paul Kirby and his partner and production designer, Adriana Kelder, originally started their lives in theater with a wandering troupe in Canada in the early 1970s. Having outgrown the mobility of their horse-drawn wagons, the Caravan Stage Company turned their eyes to the water in 1992. For four years, the troupe teamed with major boating sponsors and constructed a replica of a flat-keeled Thames Sailing Barge, a type of shipping vessel once used on the waterways of England. The custom-built vessel was designed to serve as living quarters, production storage, and stage — the masts are even easily retractable to navigate under low-hanging bridges of the ICW and European waterways.

The nautical theater troupe, best described as a Cirque du Soleil on water, is preparing their new production for a Great Loop tour of the waterways of the United States and Canada. Talking via Skype, troupe leader Kirby walks his laptop into a warehouse along the bayou in Lafitte, Louisiana, and shows his 3-D modeler in Germany the newest aluminum mast and rigging received from a company in Houston. A few steps away, two Dutch engineers and a Cajun volunteer are fabricating three massive platforms and a skeletal 10-foot seahorse that will eventually be attached to the 90- and 58-foot masts of the 100-foot custom-built barge docked outside amongst the shrimp boats.

The productions are elaborate multimedia spectacles, with actors and acrobats flying through the rigging to original scores and lyrics, bathed in the glow of kaleidoscopic lighting and designs flashed onto sails. Onshore, crowds line the waterfront parks for their shows, which always begin 30 minutes after sunset. Kirby, who serves as playwright, director, and skipper, says, "We often get compared to the large productions that can be found in Las Vegas or New York, but really we're more a direct descendant of the theatrical troupes that traveled Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. These troupes would travel in wagons and set up their productions in the plazas of Florence and Venice."

This spring, the Caravan Stage Company sails from Louisiana to Jacksonville, Florida, where the full cast will meet and rehearse for a month before touring up the Eastern seaboard beginning in June. Shows then follow in towns and cities all along the Hudson River, the Erie Barge Canal, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and Lake Champlain.

To see if they're coming to a waterfront park near you, go to

Keeping The Lighthouses

After years of planning and fundraising, lighthouse lovers will soon have a place to call their own. In January, the trustees of the previously homeless National Lighthouse Museum announced that they had raised the necessary money to open a museum in the building that once housed the U.S. Lighthouse Service Depot in Staten Island, New York. The 10-acre site, close to more than a dozen lighthouses, was chosen in 1997 to house the museum. Last year, the museum raised the $350,000 needed to lease the site. They plan to open August 7, 2014, the 225th anniversary of the Lighthouse Act of 1789, passed by the first Congress, which granted the federal government control over lighthouse operation in the U.S.

Whale Watching, For Science

Planning on doing some whale watching this summer? If you're on the East Coast, NOAA would like to see your snapshots. The Stellwagen Bank National Maine Sanctuary has launched Carib Tails, a citizen science program to track humpback whales on their travels from Stellwagen Bank, off the coast of Massachusetts, to the Caribbean.

There are around 1,000 humpbacks that journey between Stellwagen and places like the Dominican Republic and Bermuda, a circuit well traveled by boaters. The idea behind Carib Tails is to unite the two, using photos taken by cruisers to locate the whales on their journey.

Humpback whales, with their distinctive shapes, scars, and color patterns, allow scientists to identify individual animals, and NOAA is calling on boaters to help add to its collection of photos and track the movements of the endangered whales. For tips on how to safely watch whales from your boat, read "Tips For Boating Near Marine Mammals" below.

Zukunft Nominated As Next USCG Commandant

President Obama has nominated Vice Admiral Paul F. Zukunft to be the next commandant of the United States Coast Guard. Currently, Admiral Zukunft commands the Pacific Area and is a 37-year USCG veteran, as well as a USCG Academy graduate. Among the rank and file, Zukunft is probably best known for coordinating the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon Spill. He directed more than 47,000 responders, 6,500 vessels, and 120 aircraft as the Coast Guard responded to the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Zukunft will be the 25th commandant of the USCG.

Tips For Boating Near Marine Mammals

While an up-close encounter with whales or dolphins can be a real treat, boaters in manatee areas know that boating around marine mammals is a delicate situation. Here are some tips to keep everyone safe.

Photo of whale watchingPhoto: Michael L. Baird

  • Keep at least 100 yards away from marine mammals in the water or on land. That is a whole football field! Bring along a good pair of binoculars or your telephoto lens to get a better view.
  • To avoid trapping marine mammals between your boat and the shore, keep a parallel course and avoid approaching head on or from behind. Avoid excessive speed or sudden changes in speed or direction.
  • When viewing marine mammals, if they're changing their behavior because of you, you're too close. Do not herd or chase them. Limit your viewing time to 30 minutes.
  • If approached closely by marine mammals while motoring, reduce speed and shift to neutral. Do not reengage props until the animals have surfaced clear of the vessel. If your vessel is turned off, periodically tapping on your hull may alert them to your presence and help avoid collisions.
  • Keep your food onboard. Feeding wildlife can disrupt their ability to find natural food and can increase their dependence on and reduce their fear of people. This can increase the likelihood of harmful interactions.
  • Be especially careful of onboard trash. Keep a lid on your trash can, and be careful not to let trash blow overboard, especially plastics.
  • If you suspect an animal is injured, do not take matters into your own hands. Contact a member of the Marine Mammal Stranding and Entanglement Network:

What To Do With Old EPIRBs

When an EPIRB signal was activated on the night of October 9, 2013, the Coast Guard station near New Smyrna Beach, Florida, sprung into action. An Urgent Marine Information Broadcast went out, and a rescue ship from nearby Ponce De Leon Inlet searched the area for hours. Finding nothing, they returned to the base in the early morning hours, as other Coast Guard personnel tried to track down the owner to verify the distress signal. When they made contact, the owner told them he'd thrown the EPIRB into a marina trash can, which was quickly found to be the source of the signal.

Officials from NOAA 's Satellite Search and Rescue Program (SARSAT) say improper EPIRB disposal is a growing problem; as units are replaced with newer models, the old ones end up in the trash. If the battery isn't removed, the old EPIRB can end up activating in a dumpster or landfill when it makes contact with water. In 2012, there were 178 cases of false activations, up 55 percent from the total in 2010.

"These false alerts waste the precious time and resources of the Coast Guard that should be used for real emergencies," according to NOAA program manager Chris O'Connor. As more EPIRBs with new features continue to hit the market, NOAA expects the number of false activations to continue to grow. Luckily, O'Connor says, the fix is simple: When getting rid of an old locator beacon, always remove the batteries first. Check with your local recycling center for safe battery disposal. 

— Published: June/July 2014

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