“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.”

Those were the words of the Water Rat as he talked to his friend, the Mole, in Kenneth Grahame's classic, “The Wind in the Willows.” Many of us feel that statement is definitely true but it would have been better if it had read, “… messing around in boats SAFELY.”

It's a fact that boats are fun, and a means to all manners of adventure including cruising, fishing and exploring places which can't be experienced as well by land-based conveyances. But, it's also a fact that being in a boat necessitates understanding that you're in an environment which requires special care to ensure that you or others around you don't come to harm. In other words when you're in a boat, especially if you're the one operating it, you better know what you're doing.

The problem is, not everyone has access to something or someone that can impart knowledge and experience about boating. In the not-to-distant past, all you had to do in order to take to the seas – or rivers, lakes, sounds, etc. – was get in a vessel of some sort, figure out how to make it go, and cast off. And, the results were pretty much what might be expected. Kids barely big enough to see over the bow; adults who had never operated anything on the water more complicated than a pool float; drunks who figured a boat was nothing more than a floating bar – they could all be seen on public waters at various times.

Fortunately, the North Carolina General Assembly took steps in July 2009 to address that issue. They passed G.S. 75A-16.2 which states “Any person born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 must complete a NASBLA-approved boating education course before operating any vessel propelled by a motor of 10 hp or greater.” The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) was given the authority of enforcing the law. That same state agency began offering a course of study that would allow participants to take a qualifying exam and fulfill the requirements for state certification. Persons desiring to sign up for a course offered by the NCWRC, can go online to www.ncwrc.org. and click on the scrolling Boating Education banner at the bottom of the home page to find out when and where courses are being offered.

Boating education courses are also presented at various times and places by the U.S. Power Squadron (1-888-367-8777) and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. For the latter, go online to www.cgaux.org/boatinged/class_finder/index.php. They offer the basic safety course as well as others that are more specific for various categories of boaters, places and skills.

For example, the Coast Guard Auxiliary is a national organization of volunteers organized in districts, divisions and flotillas. Their mission since forming in 1939 has been to assist state and federal agencies in a number of ways such as search and rescue, pollution response and patrols, and recreational boating safety. Part of the last involves offering free or low-cost courses that address the needs of various boaters from beginning to advanced levels. They include Boating Skills and Seasmanship, Navigating With GPS, Personal Watercraft Operation, Lines and Knots, Your Boat's Radio, Boating in Local Waters and a number of others.

One popular course is titled About Boating Safely. It is a basic but comprehensive look at what an individual needs to know to take to the water in pretty much any size vessel and, also, to successfully complete the boating certification test in North Carolina. USCGA Flotilla 054-20-10, headquartered in Swansboro, N.C., has taken the initiative to offer that instruction to a very special group of citizens – middle school students and, if desired, their parents.

According to Bill Gerdsen, Flotilla Commander, the organization came up with the idea of teaching the course at Broad Creek Middle School as part of a school program over several weeks. It was an overwhelming success. Twenty students age 11 to 13 participated and all of them took and passed the culminating exam. The course was offered again recently, this time in a one-day session on a Saturday and was opened up to any interested students as well as parents and school personnel.

On the set date, nineteen students, one dad and a teacher scratched whatever they might have been doing on that part of their weekend and met at Broad Creek. Coast Guard Auxiliary personnel were ready with course manuals, a video presentation, various handouts and some kid-friendly gadgets. Most important, they had knowledgeable, interesting presenters who covered topics such as the different types and configurations of boats, aids to navigation, launching and docking, legal requirements of boating, dealing with emergencies, and water sports.

Flotilla Staff Officers Robert Kirk and Pam Carriker, assisted by others, covered that and much more in lively presentations that invited audience participation and lots of questions. With over 200 years of experience on the water among them, the presenters were well-versed in their subject matter and seemed to have a knack for communicating with middle-schoolers. That was obvious in the attentiveness of the students.

Sophia Adkins, a 7th grade student at Broad Creek Middle, was there because she enjoys boating with her parents and wants to be able at some point to venture out on her own. Kevin Jungman from Stella, was there with his dad. They are new to the area and have a boat but not a lot of experience, so they figured this was a good way to expand their horizons.

About Boating Safely is an excellent course of study, even for those who don't have to complete it for state boating certification. Anyone who is interested in taking it or one of the other courses offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary units in this area can find out when and where they are being offered by going online to www.swansboroaux.com and clicking on “Upcoming Events.” It's time well spent for anyone who enjoys “messing around in boats.”

Ed Wall can be reached at edwall@embarqmail.com or 252-671-3207. His website is www.edwalloutdoors.com