Laconia — March 25, 2009 — A couple of years ago, it was speed limits on Lake Winnipesaukee that had locals abuzz with numerous, occasionally strongly-worded online postings. Now, it’s a bill dealing with swimmers that has generated public reaction ranging from strong support to derision.
According to its sponsor, state Rep. Suzanne Gottling, D-Sunapee, the bill — HB224 — would require swimmers who go beyond 150 feet from the shoreline to either be accompanied or shadowed by a watercraft displaying a swimmer’s “flag” or to wear “easily-visible apparel” with the intent of letting boaters see and identify swimmers more readily. The state’s director of safety would set the specific regulations, which would be enforced on lakes where the Marine Patrol Bureau already has a presence: Newfound Lake, Ossipee Lake, Squam Lake, Lake Sunapee, Lake Winnipesaukee and Lake Winnisquam.
The bill had been scheduled for consideration by the full House on Tuesday but the bill was withdrawn from the consent calendar. As a result it won’t be discussed until late Thursday after House members have finished reviewing every other item ahead of it on this week’s agenda. The bill would amend a law that already applies to scuba divers and snorkelers and requires them to have a warning flag nearby by adding a new section, “Swimming in Areas Outside Swim Lines.”
The Transportation Committee previously voted 15-0 in favor of an amended version of the bill.
State Rep. Dick Stuart, D-Laconia, a member of the Transportation Committee, said HB224 was, indeed, a matter of safety. As to its being pulled from the consent calendar, “I assume it means that people are standing up for civil liberties and don’t like being told to wear red hats.”
Stuart, a pastoral psychotherapist serving his first term in the House, believes that, at times, civil liberties can be trumped by safety concerns. On the Transportation Committee, he wrote the minority report in support of a bill that would have banned smoking in motor vehicles containing children in car seats. That bill was defeated by the full House on Tuesday, which by a small margin voted that it was “inexpedient to legislate.”
“People should be brightly colored” while in area lakes, said Stuart, who is a boater. “I hate driving a boat on the lake when I can’t see swimmers clearly and I hope it (SB224) passes. This is important to have swimmers marked so that we can see them. I don’t care if it’s red or fluorescent yellow or a flag as long as they’re marked.”
While he supports HB224, Stuart — like local swim instructor Atie Caron — thinks it is unwise for swimmers to be in areas of a lake where there are apt to be powerboats.
“Myself, I would not do it even with a red cap,” Stuart said, “and I tell my wife and family not to do it either.” He questioned whether HB224, as some critics have charged, would be “unenforceable.”
On winnipesaukee.com, one writer mused about being on her dock this year and selling red swim caps for $50 apiece. Several other writers opined that lawmakers should be spending their time on the economic crisis, while one asked whether violators would be listed in The Citizen police blotter and have their court proceedings reported upon.
There was also a post from a writer who said he has witnessed watercraft violate the proximity restrictions to the shore and other boats but he, too, expressed concerns about enforceability, noting, however, that there were other laws on the books with dubious enforceability.
Caron, who teaches swimming at the Laconia Athletic and Swim Club and is a competitive master swimmer who trains for triathlons in the waters of Newfound Lake, said HB224 misses the bigger picture: Swimmers don’t mix well with boats and smart swimmers already know to stay out of a boat’s way.
“I would not swim if there’s a lot of boats out,” said Caron, who confines her swimming at Newfound to the roped-in areas along its shore. “I would not go past the line because it’s too dangerous, whether they have a red cap on or not.”
A red cap would provide some increased visibility of swimmers by boaters, she said, but also would give “a false sense of security” to swimmers who went out of areas designated for them. The cap probably would not interfere with a swimmer’s ability to see boats but, if pulled down too far, it could impede the wearer’s ability to hear them, Caron said.
Overall, HB224 is “foolish,” Caron summed up, because it is unnecessary. There’s “a lot of areas where you can train and swim” on local lakes without having to worry about boats, Caron said, and “anyone with common sense” would not press his luck.
Instead of working on HB224, Caron advised lawmakers to “use your time and energy on something that is really worthwhile.”
Gottling, who lives on Lake Sunapee, said she sponsored HB224 because, on that lake, “there are a number of swimmers who do swim, basically, across the areas where boats may legitimately come up to full speed and they [the swimmers] cannot be seen easily.”
When some of those swimmers tried to speak to boaters about being safer, the boaters were “unresponsive,” said Gottling, some of them also telling Marine Patrol that “you have no authority to tell us anything.”
“The bill, frankly, is an attempt to not restrict where swimmers can go but to have them go in a way that indicates they are there so that boaters have a much better chance of seeing them,” she said.
Introduced several months ago, Gottling expressed surprise that HB224 has just now surfaced on the public’s radar. She said she had checked with Marine Patrol’s Dave Barrett who, while not opposed to the bill, did raise questions about its enforcement.
Asked about the so-called “red cap” requirement — which was mentioned in the House’s March 20 calendar explaining HB224 — Gottling said it was “unfortunate” since it deflected attention from the larger discussion about safety. She said a red cap is just one example of an article of clothing that a swimmer could wear to make him- or herself more visible in the water.
A cap was chosen as an example, she said, because it was easy to get and also inexpensive. Gottling is hopeful that HB224 will succeed, noting that it had bipartisan support in the Transportation Committee.
“To me it would be extremely disappointing if a 15-0 vote out of a committee would be voted down.”