Requirement or not, think safety when paddling

Posted on: February 9, 2017 | Matt Fincher | Comments

If you’ve thought there are a lot more canoes and especially kayaks on the water these days, you’re right.

Interest in the unpowered craft has soared in Pennsylvania.

What, if anything, to do about keeping all those boaters safe is the question some Fish and Boat Commission officials are pondering.

Owners of non-powered boats don’t have to register them with the commission. They do, however, have to secure a launch permit from the commission or the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources before using them on a commission- or state park-owned lake.

They have been doing just that in increasing numbers.

In 2010, the commission sold 29,214 launch permits. Sales have increased every year since, however, and hit a record 99,916 last year.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources doesn’t handle as many as the commission, but it’s seen sales increase as well.

Five years ago, the agency sold 16,643 permits, said Ryan Dysinger, assistant director in the bureau of state parks. That number has increased annually ever since, hitting 23,417 for the most recent year.

None of those figures really tell the tale, though, said commission executive director John Arway.

“I think the most important number is the one we don’t have. And that is how many of those watercraft aren’t registered or don’t have launch permits,” Arway said. “It’s very difficult to get that number.”

Commissioner Ed Mascharka said the total number of unpowered craft out there is almost certainly far greater than the number of commission-issued launch permits suggests.

“It’s got to be 10 times that, at least,” he said. “At least.”

That’s a bit worrisome, said commissioner Bill Sabatose of Elk County.

“They don’t need a boating safety course. That’s getting scary because we’ve got all these people out on the water,” Sabatose said.

Most of the big box stores and some others that sell canoe and kayaks pass out boating safety handbooks to everyone who buys one, said Corey Britcher, chief of the commission’s law enforcement bureau.

“They’re really good about it,” he said.

But – unlike with those planning to drive a motorboat of 20 horsepower or more — there’s no mandatory training required, he added.

That the norm across the country, said Ryan Walt, the commission’s boating and watercraft safety manager.

Should it be?

At first glance, a mandatory training requirement might seem obvious.

Classes seem more readily available than in past years. Commission officers are required to offer at least a couple each season, and this year – based on the commission calendar at — it seems as if they’re really doing that.

Most are of the “basic boating” variety. Also available on occasion, though, are “boating and water safety awareness” classes, which include lots of content related specifically to paddlesports.

Any and all are worthwhile.

At the same time, though, there’s been no corresponding surge in boating deaths mirroring the growth in paddling. Accidents and fatal accidents are relatively low.

So is mandatory training the answer?

Probably not. But that doesn’t mean getting it isn’t the smart thing to do. A little knowledge never hurts, especially if you value your life.

Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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