Kust 10 and 13 years old, William and Ryan Wendt already are old salts. They can splice a line, read a chart, even dock a twin-screw pleasure boat. Yet they still had to take a safe-boating course.
"These kids have ridden out 14-foot seas in the Tortugas and navigated all the way to the Bahamas," their mother, Susan Wendt, said. "But the law says they've got to take a class and it was well worth it."
For a year now, Florida law has required that anybody born after Sept. 30, 1980, must complete a boater education course to operate a vessel powered by a boat with 10-horsepower or more.
"To date, we've had 614 people go through the course," instructor Dick Siedenburg said. "So far we have not had anybody fail."
The course covers everything from rules of the road to waterway marking systems, but most successful students remember the basics.
"Safety," William Wendt said. "Always wear a life jacket."
Fourteen-year-old Nick Meier agreed: "It gets a little boring at times, repeating the same thing again and again, but I guess life jackets are important. It was worth my time."
Florida leads the nation as the most dangerous boating state. Statistics show that 80 percent of all fatal accidents involve operators who have no formal training in boat handling.
"I'm used to big boats," Ryan Wendt said. "But you have to remember different things in a small boat like how to distribute the weight properly so the bow isn't plowing through the water."
Siedenburg said the course is geared toward the beginner, but even veteran boaters will benefit.
"It is amazing how many people out there don't know the rules of the road," he said. "The whole idea of a (boater education course) is to get people home safely."
Statistics show that the typical boating accident is not a collision but a fall overboard or capsizing of a boat under 26 feet in length. More than 80 percent of those fatalities are drownnings, and one out of every 10 who dies is a child.
"That is why the No. 1 rule is always wear a life jacket," Siedenburg said. "Yet people still don't do it."
The U.S. Coast Guard says you must have approved personal flotation devices (PFD) on every boat. The number and type depend on the total length of the boat and the number of people on board.
Florida law also requires that every child under 6 wear a PFD while aboard any vessel less than 26 feet when it is underway. In addition, boats 16 feet in length or longer also must have a throwable device.
"That is the second most important rule," Siedenburg said. "And you've got to keep it handy. It won't do anybody any good if it is stowed below."
Siedenburg is a stickler for appointing lookouts. "Always keep an eye out for other boats, obstructions and swimmers," he said. "A lot of accidents could be avoided if there was somebody keeping watch."
And don't forget: Drive with caution.
"Stay away from everybody and everything," Siedenburg said. "And watch the speed. People are always in a hurry on the water and that leads to accidents."
Before you leave the dock, give your boat a thorough safety check. The Florida Marine Patrol and the Coast Guard Auxiliary offer free inspections. And make sure you leave a float plan with a friend. It may just save your life.
Number to call
Florida ranks first on the list of the 14 most dangerous states for America's 80-million recreational boaters. The National Recreational Boating Safety Coalition reports that in 1996 there were 770 boating accidents with 59 deathes and 804 injuries.
Authorities believe the number of deaths could be reduced if all boat owners took an approved safe-boating class. For the class nearest you, call (800) 336-BOAT.