Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Water hazard

No brakes, speed bumps or respect

Guess who is lashing the Gulf Coast with wind and water? Bill. Not William. Not Mr. Potential Hurricane. Just plain Bill.

This sounds pretty casual for something that might sweep your house off its foundation or drown you, pretty chummy for a blast of water that has been chasing people out of their homes in Louisiana and flooding streets in Mississippi.

But we have a peculiar lack of respect for the water. Even those of us who should know better - we who live around it, who wait in line to drive over bridges spanning it, who occasionally see its destruction - continue to challenge Mother Nature with human foolishness and a whole lot of horsepower.

Friday night, about 11:30, a pleasure boat, putting along the Ohio River, was rammed by a huge speedboat called a cigarette boat. Six of the seven people on board the smaller "picnic boat" were hurt, some critically. The driver of the larger craft did not stick around to help. A hit-skip.

Cigarette is the brand name of boats built to race on the ocean. Its manufacturer says, "These legendary racing boats are so long and narrow they remind people of smoking materials. The recognition of the name by the general public is so great that they often mistakenly refer to all racing boats in the class as Cigarettes." The term has become generic, just like Kleenex.

My nephew calls them "go fast boats." Some, equipped with 2,000-horsepower engines, reach speeds of more than 100 mph. They "plane," or ride on top of the water. You don't so much drive them as aim them. They do not have brakes or turn signals or even licensed drivers. Police say the one that injured six people Friday night was traveling between 40 and 50 miles per hour. Maybe the driver couldn't see well enough in the dark to open 'er up. But "he was out being an ass all day long," according to Sgt. Raleigh Barnett of the Dayton, Ky., police.

You can be a complete ass and as long as you have oh, say, a half-million dollars and were born before Jan. 1, 1982, in Ohio you can hop aboard one of these machines and open the throttle. You do not have to demonstrate an ability to pull one into a dock without bashing the adjacent watercraft - the marine equivalent of parallel parking.

In Kentucky, boaters between the ages of 12 and 17 aren't allowed to drive anything over 10 horsepower unless they've qualified for a safe boating certificate, or are accompanied by someone 18 or older or somebody with a Kentucky certificate or the equivalent from another state. After that, all you need is enough money to buy or rent one. You have to have a fishing license because state officials are choosey about who is empowered to bait a hook. But you can throw a leg over a personal watercraft and go from 0 to 30 mph in three seconds without a single minute of instruction.

You have to get a license for the boat but not the driver. And - to borrow a phrase from one of my least favorite organizations, the National Rifle Association - boats don't kill people, people kill people. Nor is the water to blame. Nature is powerful. Capricious. Unpredictable. Dangerous.

But not stupid.


E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

Howard: Some good news
Korte: Inside City Hall
Pulfer: Water hazard

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