Excuse me while I take a moment to get serious here, but I've been having an email discussion with a friend who can be a bit of a gadfly & as gadflies sometimes do, he's gotten me thinking and I would just like to mull over some of those thoughts here.
I think that a lot of people who read this blog remember the case I'm talking about - there were a couple of weeks where it seemed like that was the only thing that was being discussed on Facebook & the boating blogs, but for anyone who missed it, here was the story (and I'm going to try to keep it very simple, I'll add my own opinions after the basic description):
A little over a year ago, there was a collision between a motorboat and a kayaker on Lake George. The kayaker died. The motorboat driver was initially charged with reckless operation, a misdemeanor, but after hearing much testimony, the grand jury chose to indict on a lesser charge of failing to yield the right of way (using the "rules of the road" as defined in NYS Navigation Law).
The case was sent to court on that basis and last April, the local kayak community was set electronically a-roar when the judge ruled that the motorboat driver was innocent of all charges because kayaks are not considered vessels under NYS navigation laws.
Of course the area papers were all over it very quickly - and giving about as much background information as I just did. For a kayaker who first became acquainted with the story at that time (as I did when a friend posted it on my Facebook wall), it was the easiest thing in the world to fill in those blank outlines with our worst fears and prejudices - some knucklehead yay-hoo at the wheel, defended by some shyster lawyer and some half-asleep judge who didn't care enough to see justice done...
Except that it really wasn't like that at all. The first blow to my instant ugly picture came because the first thing I tend to do when I see a story involving a certain interpretation of a set of rules is to go look at the rules. I'm no lawyer but back in the testing days, I did pretty well in tests of reading comprehension and I still trust myself to read things correctly as long as I take the time to sit down and read them carefully. NYS navigation law is a pretty long document but there's a nice clear table of contents & if you follow it it actually ends up being very easy to find the exact bit that -- yes -- completely excludes canoes and rowboats from the Navigation Rules! I couldn't believe what I was seeing because I went looking with the assumption that we are SO covered - but there it was, right on what would've been the first page if I'd been looking at a hard copy!
Article 1, § 2, line 6-(c) "Pleasure vessel" shall mean and include every vessel not within the classification of public vessel or residential vessel. However, the provisions of this chapter shall not apply to rowboats and canoes except as otherwise expressly provided.
With that in mind, I then headed on down to Article 4, § 41, Pilot rules, where sure enough, there was no express provision extending any role whatsoever to paddlers & rowers in the right-of-way hierarchy. There are other provisions which mean that the judge's decision certainly isn't the declaration of open season on us teenyboaters, but...yes, we just don't count in the NYS version of the rules of the road.
Bizarre, but true, and a real eye-opener - but I still didn't have any real picture of what had happened until I took that info into a discussion that was going on on another friend's wall and involved a number of real-world friends. It was in that discussion where I finally got a better picture of what might had happened - someone who actually lived in the Lake George area basically came in & started talking about not the yay-hoo I think we were all picturing, but a responsible boater who was absolutely distraught after hitting a paddler on a windy, choppy day of the exact sort when most of us kayakers know we are very hard to see.
It was at that point that I went & found earlier versions of the story that were reported in a much less sensationalist style - like this one in the Albany Times-Union, which described a perfect setup for an accident, a terrible one but an accident - novice kayakers, carrying but not wearing lifejackets, paddling out onto a placid-seeming lake & then being caught out too far as the weather suddenly turned nasty on them. Detail that really got me - as soon as he realized he'd actually hit a paddler, the motorboat driver (who had 55 years of experience & a perfectly clean record) jumped overboard to help look for the victim, and stayed in so long that he himself had to be treated for hypothermia.
That is not the act of a person who doesn't care, and I think it was when I was reading that that I decided that I didn't want to jump on the bandwagon and do a blog post about it. I just didn't see what I could say
So why on earth am I doing one now?
Well - because my friend Chuck was asking what I was doing, and I got to wondering if there was anything that was worth doing, and I started thinking that if there was a silver lining in this tragic case, it was that this bizarre loophole has been brought to wide public attention.
And the last article I saw about the case was perhaps the one that was the most interesting, and that's the one I thought I might bring back to people's attention. The fascinating coda of the case?
"Both the prosecutor and defense lawyer in a case against a man whose motorboat killed a kayaker say the case demonstrates the need for changes in navigation law to protect paddlers."
Full article here.
I don't know if there's anything we paddlers and rowers can do to express support or urge action. I still think the 2 best navigation rules for paddlers are informal ones that will never appear in a law book - the Law of Gross Tonnage (the bigger boat is always gonna win in a contact situation) and the Law of Assumed Invisibility (do everything practical that you can to be seen, and then assume that nobody does anyways)-- but it does seem like with human-powered vessels being SO much more common now than they were when the Navigation Rules were written, this business of the pilot rules excluding them seems like something that should be revisited and (hopefully) revised.
Anyone have any thoughts, or any more recent information? I'd be genuinely interested in reading it - mid-April seems so long ago and once the initial flurry of shock at the ruling was over, it seems like the whole thing faded fast.
It would be a shame if the loss of public interest meant that the opportunity that was opened up by the case ended up closing without anything happening - I'm hoping that things are still moving in the right direction even without the attention of the social network (sometimes they do).
If a weird rule falls in the forest, and nobody blogs about it, does it make a noise?
Lunch hour note, following day: Well, there have been some very good thoughts & suggestions in the comments - totally worth a read. I have already somewhat acted on Buck's suggestion that paddlers who would like to be included in the pilot rules (even if it's at the bottom of the right-of-way hierarchy, as we might well end up being) should contact their assemblymen & senators - I will do that too, but first, I sent a comment to the office of the Saratoga County D.A., who is the one who was saying that he was considering lobbying to have the law changed. That seemed like a good place to start. My comment was pretty short - I just asked if he was still pursuing that & that as a NYS kayaker, I support revising the rules. If I hear anything back about where that is, I'll post it here. If anyone else wants to do the same, click here to go to D.A. Murphy's comment form. It only takes a moment. Thanks!