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Roger Long 07-01-2013 03:51 PM

Are You The Operator Underway?
The question has been asked in another thread, are you an operator at anchor? The more significant question is, are you the “operator” underway? The answer may surprise you.

There is no question in Canada for any recreational vessel that is not required to have a licensed master. The operator, the person responsible for everything that happens on the vessel and the one who will be blamed if there is a collision, grounding, or injury is the person whose hands are on the wheel. This responsibility shifts as helmsmen are changed. Turn the helm over to a guest , tell them , “Steer straight for that house.”, and, if the boat runs aground and there is an injury, it will be their fault. The guest must have a Canadian recreational vessel operator’s card to legally manipulate the wheel. The only thing you might be held accountable for in this case as an owner might be letting a person without a card steer.

U.S. State jurisdictions are increasingly moving towards this approach, driven by modeling laws after motor vehicles. The overwhelming number of boats they are concerned with are outboards where this actually makes some sense and it is simply beyond legislators and regulators to think about how things might be different on a large cruising boat.

I wrote an article about this and other regulatory foolishness for one of our New England boating magazines. See page 93.


Oops. Sorry. The online archive of the magazine seems to have disappeared. I'll find out if this is temporary or permanent.

caberg 07-01-2013 04:02 PM

Re: Are You The Operator Underway?
So who is the "operator" when you have the autopilot on?

CalebD 07-01-2013 04:34 PM

Re: Are You The Operator Underway?
The person who switched on the autopilot, naturally!

BarryL 07-01-2013 04:46 PM

Re: Are You The Operator Underway?

This is great question and I would really like to know the answer. I live in NY and I have not been able to get a straight answer. Here, you don't need an license to operate a sailboat. Anyone over the age of 18 can legally operate the boat. I rarely steer my boat, I prefer to let a 'guest' or the autopilot steer so I can trim sails, keep a lookout, relax, etc.

So who, from a legal standpoint, is 'operating' the boat?


Roger Long 07-01-2013 05:03 PM

Re: Are You The Operator Underway?

Originally Posted by caberg (Post 1052772)
So who is the "operator" when you have the autopilot on?

Both Canada and Connecticut stopped answering my phone calls and emails about that question without giving me an answer.

I later confirmed the Canadian position with a Transport Canada inspector over dinner. I asked her the autopilot question. She rolled her eyes and said that the idea of a recreational vessel having an autopilot was as incomprehensible to the legislators forcing these rules on them as a fish having a bicycle. The idea that someone might me navigating, looking at charts, watching the radar, while another person steered in a straight line was also equally outside their ken. As far as they, and many U.S. states are concerned, all recreational craft are outboard boats.

I hope I can find the article. The Connecticut situation is crazy.

Donna_F 07-01-2013 05:04 PM

Re: Are You The Operator Underway?
My take is that if there is an accident, the names on the title *and* the person behind the wheel (if different) will all end up in court. I think part of being a responsible boat owner includes keeping the guests/crew and the boat safe. That responsibility extends to making good decisions about who I allow behind the helm because if there is an incident, they may automatically become part of the legal fallout.

Roger Long 07-01-2013 05:16 PM

Re: Are You The Operator Underway?

Originally Posted by DRFerron (Post 1052817)
That responsibility extends to making good decisions about who I allow behind the helm because if there is an incident, they may automatically become part of the legal fallout.

If you are in Canada or states that have adopted this interpretation, part of being responsible is also telling guests that they may be dragged into any post accident mess if they touch the wheel.

If you are compulsively responsible, no more letting kids steer. They are minors and can not legally make a decision about taking on such a responsibility. It's illegal to do so in Canada anyway unless they have their card. When I was flying, I could let my sons hold the yoke under my supervision but I can't legally let a person with 40 years of cruising and circumnavigation experience but no operators card touch the boat's helm in Canada and some states. Go figure.

In Connecticut it is even weirder. The experience cruiser, even if not a CT resident, if they own real estate in CT but haven't taken the eight week boating course, can not legally touch the wheel with you standing right there. A person who had never been on a boat before in their life but doesn't own any CT real estate and is resident of another state could be given the deck watch unsupervised at night to navigate the vessel through all the traffic up to the NY border.

Roger Long 07-01-2013 05:45 PM

Re: Are You The Operator Underway?
Links to "Points East" article now working:

There is some strange interaction between their site and the URL coding of this one so I can't include the link. Go to this one and click "Down the Rabbit Hole."

Points East Articles

Minnewaska 07-01-2013 10:39 PM

Re: Are You The Operator Underway?
In an aircraft, there is a clear distinction drawn between the Pilot in Command and the Sole Manipulator of the Controls. They can be the same, but may not be. The PIC doesn't transfer and remains both in command and fully responsible for the aircraft, even when not manipulating the controls. I think this makes more sense.

tempest 07-01-2013 11:27 PM

Re: Are You The Operator Underway?
I think someone must have posted this before because I recall reading your article Roger.

My take, is that the long history of the sea began to change in part with the advent of Jetskis.

Every state is different, but they all seem to be moving toward a NASBLA approved course and an "operators" card/license; some more slowly than others. Here in NJ and in many other states it applies to " Power driven vessels". A sailboat under power is a Power driven vessel, a sailboat under sail alone is not. So you can turn the wheel over to anyone you want, as long as you're sailing and not motoring.

While one needs to follow State laws, you are still also required to comply with the Colregs while on federally controlled waters. ( re: proper lookout vs autopilot)

The " operator" of a motor vessel is no different than an operator of a car. Just because I'm in the right hand seat, doesn't mean I can let an unlicensed driver, drive my car. Even if that operator has 40 years of driving experience. Again, I think the focus is on power boats and speed etc.

For boats, if someone has that level of experience and wants to mitigate all the technical limitations of individual state laws..they can obtain a CG license and they'd be allowed to operate in most if not all states. Even though, a CG license requires no knowledge of how to operate a Jet Ski. lol.

Yes, the courses are easy, the exams are easy, their focus is on the small open vessel where most of the accidents and deaths occur. Everyone gets caught in the net though.

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