October 3, 2005, 3:45 P.M.
Yesterday I raced in the Winnipesaukee Yacht Club's Cold Duck Race, the last race of the season for me. It was a warm, sunny day and so after putting the sailboat away, my son and I took a short ride on his 13’ Boston Whaler. The perspective from his little boat was interesting, and a little frightening especially in light of the tour boat sinking in New York that claimed the lives of 21 people.
The reports of the New York sinking come at the same time as reports about the first of two scheduled work sessions on legislation to impose speed limits on Lake Winnipesaukee held by The New Hampshire House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee. The committee is considering, among other things, House Bill 162, sponsored by Representative Jim Pilliod (R-Belmont) that would set a daytime speed limit of 45 miles per hour, and a nighttime speed limit of 25 miles per hour on Lake Winnipesaukee. There have been a number of public meetings on the legislation held at locations around the lake, and public sentiments run strong and deep on both sides of the issue.
I don’t know that a speed limit is any sort of panacea for the lake's ills, but I do know that the lake is at times a dangerous and scary place. Accidents like the New York sinking are only a bad set of waves away, and speed is only one of several factors to be considered in avoiding a potential disaster here at home. Alcohol, inattention, lack of knowledge of rules for safe boat operation and inadequate enforcement are all factors as well. In my own observation, we also can’t leave out the rudeness and a general “screw you, I’m on vacation” attitude, which is becoming more prevalent, either.
I race sailboats and enjoy and occasional motorboat ride on the lake, but I find that most of us who live here year round are on the lake less and less on weekends, and almost never on holidays. Our local Sailing Clubs and Yacht Clubs are not racing much on weekends because the high level of boat chop and traffic make it difficult to sail and even more difficult to race. There is little or no regard for the safe passage and right of way rules and wake restrictions currently in place and I don’t see any likelihood that a speed limit will get any more respect. I also wonder about enforcement. Everyone knows that before Memorial Day and after Labor Day, Marine patrol is less than fully staffed. Even between those dates, there are simply too many boats and not enough Marine patrol for proper enforcement of existing laws.
The recent tragedy on Lake George, although still under investigation, appears to have been caused, to some degree, by boat wake. Although I stress that there is still an ongoing investigation into the New York sinking, and that the actual cause is as yet unknown, it should serve as a starting point on a discussion about the safe and respectful use of our Lakes that is broader than speed limits. The increase in size of the average boat on Lake Winnipesaukee in recent years, coupled with the increase in the number of boats, leaves the lake resembling an old fashioned washing machine on a busy weekend, and the danger of swamping and sinking, especially in the more populated areas has grown exponentially. I have seen large boats plow through groups of youth sailors or through their racecourses without regard for rules or safety, and those incidents, criminal acts really, go unpunished with regularity. Right now I see nothing different happening if those irresponsible boaters were simply speeding.
People keep putting bigger and bigger boats on the lake and in turn leaving others feeling that the boat that they had last year is no longer safe. Marine Patrol is overtaxed in enforcing the rules they are currently charged with enforcing and I don’t see that they have any effective way of enforcing a speed limit. A law or rule that cannot be enforced is worse than no rule at all because it undermines the integrity of the system and respect for the law. Before we pass a speed limit, we need to know that it will, and can be enforced. I don’t really have an opinion on whether or not the speed limit law ought to be passed, but I do believe that everyone ought to be able to use the lake and that my son's Boston Whaler is entitled to the same courtesy as the next guy’s 50’ cruiser or 500 horsepower offshore racer.