Legislation Proposed To Ban Jet Ski Use

Cape and Islands Rep. Eric Turkington Presses Effort to Lmit Watercraft On Waters Less Than 500 Acres

By JOSHUA SABATINI

Harbor masters, town officials and many Island residents consider them a safety hazard and an annoyance. Users buy and rent them as recreational vehicles and for the fun of riding Vineyard waters at high speed.

The two colliding positions run to the heart of a longstanding Island and national dispute over use of personal watercraft, better known to many as Jet Skis. Now state legislative proposals governing the use of these watercraft may be changing.

Cape and Islands Rep. Eric Turkington and state Rep. Tom O'Brien have sponsored a bill that bans personal watercraft on all bodies of water less than 500 acres. They introduced the bill two weeks ago in the public safety committee. A committee vote to send the bill to the floor is pending.

Mr. Turkington drafted another bill that gives town officials the power to ban the use of personal watercraft on all bodies of water. This bill was modeled on similar legislation in New York that went into effect earlier this year. Mr. Turkington said he compromised on the 500-acre formula after discussing it with Mr. O'Brien and others involved.

Richard Murray, state environmental police director, said a ban should only be a last resort and that educating high-speed water vehicle users under the scrutiny of regulatory agencies is the proper way to begin. Mr. Murray recognizes the legislation is a response to environmental concerns, noise pollution and the manner in which the personal watercraft are operated. He supports the bill banning jet skis on waters less than 500 acres.

"Personal watercraft users tend to be the least experienced water vessel users. My solution is to require mandatory education not just for personal watercraft users, but for all water vessel operators," said Mr. Murray.

The mandatory education program would be phased in over a five to seven-year period, requiring boaters to go through an eight-hour course to receive a lifelong boat safety certificate. New Hampshire will require certificates for all boat users in the 2002 season.

The Island has regulated the use of personal watercraft in several ways. Operators cannot tow skiers and are required to wear an emergency wrist shut-off leash and life jackets, to maintain a fire extinguisher on board and to register the watercraft.

Along State Beach between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, personal watercraft operators must remain 300 feet off the the shoreline and travel only at headway speed through Island harbors.

Harbor masters report more than a handful of problems with personal watercraft. Charlie Blair, Edgartown harbor master, said he has had problems with people launching Jet Skis in Sengekontacket Pond and "letting it rip." Mr. Blair said many people launch jet skis off unregistered trailers without licenses or lights, and they have begun to ticket illegal trailers to cut the number of offenders.

Oak Bluffs harbor master Todd Alexander said he spends a large part of his day on patrol either stopping or warning personal watercraft operators who are not aware of the regulations or who deliberately violate rules. Mr. Alexander receives innumerable phone calls every day during the summer reporting Jet Ski violations. "I have not seen any accidents, but there is definitely a potential for safety problems and there have been many close calls," said Mr. Alexander. Personal watercraft users drive too close to swimmers and have narrowly missed hitting boats.

Jay Wilbur, Vineyard Haven harbor master, has seen accidents involving skiers. Mr. Wilbur reported skiers have run into things like the pillars of Lagoon Bridge, and one operator, a few years ago, jumped a wake and ran up into the back of a boat, seriously injuring a person on board.

"The harbor community has made the judgment that they would rather not see the things or hear them. The main issue is that the things are annoying to everyone around. They are annoying like mosquitoes" said Mr. Wilbur.

In opposition to the legislation is the Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA), which operates out of Washington, D.C. Bill Decaine, PWIA's government relations manager, said personal watercraft already are banned on waters less than 75 acres, and and the new proposed legislation, if approved, will more than "triple the size of the ban and basically wipe out the right to ride in the majority of the state. The way to deal with the concerns is law enforcement and education." Mr. Decaine said personal watercraft are being singled out, and that legislators are looking to take the first step toward a total ban on Jet Skis.

Mr. Decaine said: "The opposition brings up environmental issues, but these are simply not true. In the past three years we have reduced the sound and the hydrocarbon emissions by 70 per cent in the newer models.

"It doesn't make sense to pick us out, because the two-stroke engine on the personal watercraft are the same engines used by motorboats. And our engine doesn't tear up the environment like a propeller does. Also, the personal watercraft are not any louder than other boats; they just have a different sound.

"There is no rhyme or reason for the recent bills, other than the old worn-out arguments that do not apply any more. If you hear a motorcycle drive by your house going fast, you do not try to ban motorcycles, but you do address the driver."