Boat Speed Limit Debate Sprawls

Wolfeboro — July 7, 2005 — At the beginning of a public meeting last night to discuss a proposed speed limit on Lake Winnipesaukee, Rep. Dave Currier asked speakers to stick to the topic.

Currier, a Republican from Henniker, is the chairman of the House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee, which is studying the bill until the 2006 legislative session. Last night’s was the second of three meetings the committee held, and he said members had already heard about other concerns at the first.

“We already know about safe passage,”he said. “. . . We already know that that’s an issue and a problem – a major one.”

But in discussing why they wanted or didn’t want a speed limit of 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night, many speakers ended up discussing the safe passage rule, which states that boats going faster then headway speed (about 5 mph) must stay at least 150 feet apart. That rule, lake crowding, boater etiquette and boater education were acknowledged as problems by both sides – the point of contention was whether they are related to speed or whether they’re different issues entirely.

Gary Chehames said speed was obviously related to some accidents. “When you’re traveling 60 miles an hour, approaching another boat, 150 feet becomes zero feet really quick,” he said.

But Jack Porter said he’s been using watercrafts on the lake for more than 60 years. “Over the years, I’ve observed boats exploding, sinking, running over underwater objects, running up on underwater objects . . . and running into other boats, leaving a large hole in the side,” he said. “Most of the problems on Lake Winnipesaukee have nothing to do with speed.”

Residents on both sides of the issue were experienced boaters: The 21 people who got up to speak within the first two hours had more than 350 years on the water among them. They were also educated boaters. When Currier asked the audience how many of them already had safe boating certificates, a large majority of the people in the room raised their hands, even though most of them wouldn’t have needed one under current state law, which requires boating safety courses for everyone born after 1967. (By 2008, they’ll be required for everyone.)

Several speakers cited the boater education program as progress and said that the state should give Marine Patrol more funding so that officers can enforce the existing laws.

David Breda, who lives in Alton Bay and works on the lake for a marine contractor that has barges on the lake from April through December, said his crew often see people passing too close. Recently, a family took their children tubing right past a 90-by-24-foot barge. At one point, he said, the tube was within 50 feet of the barge.

“Anything to increase awareness or education on this lake is better than any speed limit you can impose,” he said.

Residents also discussed enforcement – whether it was plausible, whether plausibility should figure into legislators’ decisions. Speakers on both sides said the opposite position would do severe damage to the Lakes Region’s economy. A few talked about personal freedom – the freedom to run their go-fast boats as they liked, as long as they did it safely, or the freedom to kayak out from shore without worrying about being hit.

At the heart of every argument in the speed-limit debate, no matter the speaker, seems to be a genuine regard for Lake Winnipesaukee and concern for doing what’s best for it. Kathy Eaton runs lake tours out of Wolfeboro with her husband on the 28-foot wooden boat, Millie B, and supports a statewide lake speed limit. She ended her testimony with a statement whose first part resonated with only half of the room, but whose conclusion rang true for all:

“If it doesn’t happen, we will see a greater loss of life and a greater loss of the quality of life on all of our lakes,” she said, “. . . and I think there isn’t a person in this room that doesn’t recognize them as one of New Hampshire’s greatest treasures.”

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