Noisy?Dangerous?Or fun? Watercraft debate gets personal

(7/19/98)
A Personal Watercraft and it operator. Cape Cod Times Photo. Click jetski to see regulations.

By DOUG FRASER

STAFF WRITER

CENTERVILLE - Jack Largay loves Jet Skis. Largay, a grandfather and owner of Cape Cod Powersports, is at the helm as we skip across Lake Wequaquet. His shoreside lecture emphasized safety and convenience of personal watercraft - widely known by Kawasaki's trade name, Jet Ski. Even so, the smile on his face as we skip over the lake's surface showed he loves the speed built into these small powerful craft. A pump gulps water, blasting it out a nozzle at the stern, propelling us forward. Acceleration is effortless. The water looks as forgiving as concrete, but the feeling of crossing from shore to shore in under a minute makes the experience of riding a personal watercraft feel almost like futuristic travel. At nearly 60 mph, we are at the outer limits of fun.

Dennis Murley hates Jet Skis.

An Audubon naturalist, Murley spends his days showing children and adults the wonders of the natural world. It is a quiet, contemplative job, with hours of patient observation of the lives of turtles, insects and birds. But ask him how he feels about personal watercraft. "There should be an open season on Jet Skis," Murley fumed. "I have no problem with them beyond the 200-mile limit." Surf kayaking on a foggy day in 3- to 4-foot waves a few years ago, Murley pretty much had the beach to himself. The only sounds were the surf, the clunk of a paddle, and his own breathing as he labored up the face of a wave. Suddenly, he heard an angry buzzing sound, and four Jet Skis burst over the top of the cresting wave, riding between him and the beach, an illegal and dangerous maneuver. "I've been kayaking for 25 years on the Cape," Murley said. "I was getting into places even a canoe couldn't go. Now it seems that, for everything from hiking to cross-country skiing, there's a motorized vehicle. The Jet Ski is the final motorized insult."

Bad boys on the water

Personal watercraft have a reputation as the bad boys of the boating world. Deserved or not, they are known for their noise, pollution, dangerous maneuvers, and high accident rates. And Murley's response is typical of those who come into contact with personal watercraft: If you don't ride one, chances are you don't like them. Surrounded by water, frequented by water lovers, the Cape is a natural battleground over the use of personal watercraft. And that battle is raging nationwide. The National Transportation Safety Board released a report last month stating the vast majority of accidents and fatalities on personal watercraft involve operators who have had no boating safety instruction and had been riding for less than an hour. The National Park Service proposed rules last week that would ban personal watercraft from all national parks as early as next year because of safety, noise and environmental concerns.

Personal watercraft regulations have been debated - and often, hotly debated - in most Cape towns, most recently in Provincetown, Wellfleet and the four towns bordering Pleasant Bay. Realizing that a complete ban could lead to litigation, towns have had to compromise, balancing citizens' complaints against the personal watercraft operators' right to use their craft.

Their popularity grows

Chances are if you haven't heard one or seen one off your favorite Cape beach, you will soon. As the biggest selling vessel type in the boating market and with registration in this state nearly doubling in the past two years, personal watercraft are here to stay. Lt. Lawrence Chenier, supervisor of the state Environmental Police Boat and Recreational Vehicle Safety Bureau in Hyannis, estimated there are nearly 5,500 personal watercraft registered in the state. That's up from close to 3,000 in 1995. Nationally, sales of personal watercraft make up 34 percent of all boat sales. It's not all about speed and maneuverability. Personal watercraft advocates now give equal weight to their convenience. At 400 pounds, they're light enough that any car can tow one. The trailer is small and easy to handle. Loading on and off a trailer is a one-person operation. But the speedy little craft have their critics, as well. "I think they are making a concentrated effort in the areas of noise and pollution, but there are still concerns out there in the way these are being operated," said Dennis Burnett, a park ranger and program manager in Washington, DC, who worked on the proposed National Park regulations.

Regulation replaces bans

In Wellfleet, for example, a two-year-old debate still rages. In 1996, angered by the noise and concerned about safety to swimmers and wildlife, summer resident Corinne Bliss spearheaded a drive aimed, at first, at a total town ban on personal watercraft. After town counsel Michael Ford advised them a ban might not hold up in court, the town settled for a requirement restricting launching to a ramp at the town pier and a 5 mph speed limit until they reach the outer harbor. "We don't want to ban them entirely, but regulate them so that everyone can use the harbor," said Suzanne Thomas, the town's beach administrator. Thomas said increased personal watercraft activity in the harbor exposed the split between those who want to enjoy kayaking or reading quietly by the water and those who view the calm open waters of the harbor as a place to see what their vehicle can do. And the complaints keep coming. This week in Wellfleet a public hearing will be held on a request for a ban on personal watercraft in Blackfish Creek.

Noise complaints

Noise is the most common complaint - although industry spokesmen argue that personal watercraft meet federal and state noise standards. "They whine and whine and whine like motorcycles with bad engines," said Walter Wannie, who has lived on Lake Wequaquet since 1939. The Centerville lake is the Cape's third largest and a favorite spot for personal watercraft. Opponents failed last year to have them banned them from the lake. A 1995 study of noise levels in marine engines by the New Jersey State Police showed personal watercraft scoring lower in noise levels than single- and twin-engine outboards. Still, the industry has developed muffling systems that will cut noise on 1999 models by an average of 50 percent. Industry spokesmen blame older models and modifications by owners, such as bolt-on mufflers that exhaust above the water line, for the high noise levels. Wannie said the problem is not just the noise but the way they are used, going back and forth in one area at open throttle. The harshest complaints, he said, come from smaller inlets where the craft spin around and throttle up to charge back across the lake. "I think if people would go by the rules and be considerate of others, and find some way of quieting them down for a couple of months of the year, it wouldn't be bad," said Wannie. "Except in the confined spaces." Burnett, who is developing regulations for the National Park Service, complimented the industry on making an effort to reduce noise and pollution. Still, despite an agreement worked out with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reduce emissions by 75 percent by 2006 and industry commitment to making cuts in noise levels, his agency still has concerns. In response to complaints throughout the park system, Burnett has been working on new national park regulations for personal watercraft. Now in its final review, the regulations would prohibit these craft from all national parks except those specifically created for boating, lsuch as Lake Mead and Glen Canyon. All other parks, including the Cape Cod National Seashore, would have two years to develop special regulations to allow their use. Otherwise they would be banned. The Seashore recently banned the launching of personal watercraft from the beach in its off-road vehicle corridor in Provincetown, while allowing the launching of conventional boats.

Pleasant Bay debate

At public hearings this spring on the 48 recommendations in the proposed Pleasant Bay Management Plan, the move to ban personal watercraft sparked the biggest protest. The bay is bordered by Chatham, Harwich, Brewster, and Orleans. Issues of concern included possible threats to sensitive habitats, bird-nesting areas, and marine life in shallow water areas. Current research in those areas falls on both sides of the argument, with the industry producing studies showing little, if any, effect and conservationists presenting scientific arguments on birds being flushed from their nests, interrupted feeding patterns, and habitat destruction. The ban was eliminated from the final draft of the plan, with a call for more extensive research on the environmental effects of personal watercraft. But a proposed ban on the rental of personal watercraft was left in, prompted by concerns over inexperienced operators. "Overwhelmingly, public concern about the negligent operation of Jet Skis came up in virtually all of the public meetings," said Carol Ridley, the planner who helped draft the management plan. Many people offered "anecdotal input" about bad experiences with personal watercraft, she said.

Horror stories

For personal-watercraft haters, their reasons range from a bad personal experience to environmental concerns to a general feeling the world would be better off without them. "I'm sure they're a blast," said Susan Nickerson, executive director of the Association for the Protection of Cape Cod. "But they have a high obnoxious quotient. They're noisy, they're intrusive, and they go places where you don't expect boats to be." She ticked off a list of possible offenses: chewing up eel grass beds, disturbing bird nests with wakes and noise in shallow areas, scaring off food sources for predators, and being dangerous to operators and swimmers, scuba divers, and other boats. Nickerson admitted neither she nor her organization had done any research to back up her impressions. But like many others, she had a bad Jet-Ski story: Nickerson, who owns a sailboat, recalled being anchored off Dead Neck in Cotuit, enjoying a quiet afternoon with friends, when a personal watercraft buzzed her boat. "I kept trying to wave the person off, but he thought that just made it more of a game, and kept coming at us," she said. Chatham's David Wilber, who owns a power boat, recalled watching two men on personal watercraft drive into a sand bank behind Tern Island, bouncing over the top and into the water on the other side. By day's end, they had taken a 3-foot gouge out of the bank. He believes the craft are designed to be operated in a reckless manner. "They're no fun unless you're crashing through at high speed," he said. Wilber knows that fun comes with a price: A friend was killed while riding a personal watercraft in Florida. More than anything else, Nickerson resented what personal watercraft represent - the violation of the quiet backwaters where many take refuge from the summer madness. "It's just one more piece of the picture being dismantled," she said.

Environmental concerns

There is conflicting research on the environmental effects of personal watercraft. The Personal Watercraft Industry Association literature says they have no greater impact on water quality than similarly sized boats, and have a minimal impact on sea grasses and marine animals, fish and wildlife. While their shallow draft allows them to get into places other motorized craft can't go, the jet pump could suck up vegetation and bottom sediment, fouling the motor. The industry association also contended there is no scientific data to show that noise disturbs water fowl or other marine animals. A 1997 report prepared for the watercraft association by a Florida consultant showed no suspension of bottom sediments or turbidity after 50 passes with a personal watercraft at 20 to 30 mph at depths from 19 to 36 inches. The report found no significant difference in quantity of sea grass in areas used by personal water craft. It did find some suspension of bottom sediments and exposure or sea grass rhizomes in areas where starting, stopping and turning had occurred. Other studies show birds being flushed more often, and from a greater distance, by personal watercraft. There is also some concern about the effect the wake from personal watercraft would have on water-level bird nests and erosion in areas that are too shallow for conventional craft. 'The most awesome thing' Fans of personal watercraft remain loyal and enthusiastic. "I think it's the most awesome thing to do, I love it," said Geneva Cook, a Provincetown police officer, who rides in Hatches Harbor. "I've been fishing since I was a teenager, off many different size boats. Nothing compares to being on a Jet Ski." "Speed is not necessary, although it's kind of fun," said Cook, who loves her personal watercraft because it is lightweight and easy to load and unload by herself. "With a boat that would be a pain in the neck," she said. Rob Famulare and his friend Danny are barely 20. Surfers, bored by a day of no surf, they came down to the town marina in Wellfleet to launch a pair of personal watercraft and surf in the wake of one of them. Danny held a copy of the town regulations governing personal watercraft. They explained they were courteous to other boaters and bathers, but the name of the game is fun. "It's just nice to get out on the water," said Danny, who declined to give his last name. A personal watercraft doesn't insulate you from the water, like a boat; it's more like the surfing experience, skimming over the surface, bouncing off wave peaks, sliding left and right. "It's a lot of fun," said Famulare. "I don't know why people hate them." But Danny knew: "They're noisy, they're obnoxious. ... You have a high amount of speed and danger. "Fishermen hate us. I don't like them either, but we just want to have fun."