Licensing Boaters

The U.S. Coast Guard is talking about licensing boaters. It’s being talked about as an antiterrorism measure, in typical incoherent ways:

The United States already has endured terrorism using small civilian craft, albeit overseas: In 2000, suicide bombers in the port of Aden, Yemen, used an inflatable boat to blow themselves up next to the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others.

Terrorism experts point to other ways small boats potentially could assist in attacks ­ for example, a speedboat could deposit saboteurs at the outlet pipes of a nuclear power plant, or hijackers aboard a cruise ship. In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers in a crowded harbor could use small watercraft to detonate a tanker carrying ultra-volatile liquefied natural gas, causing a powerful explosion that could kill thousands.

And how exactly is licensing watercraft supposed to help?

There are lots of good reasons to license boats and boaters, just as there are to license cars and drivers. But counterterrorism is not one of them.

Posted on January 4, 2007 at 2:35 PM66 Comments


Alexandre Carmel-Veilleux January 4, 2007 2:58 PM

I’m pretty sure that Timohy McVeigh had a driver’s license and valid license plates on his rental bomb truck. How would licensing have prevented the Oklahoma City bombing?

Neal January 4, 2007 3:10 PM

I thought a lot of boats and jet-ski’s etc were licensed already? State by state? As to what it’s supposed to help – line their coffers of course.

Tim R January 4, 2007 3:27 PM

In my state (Florida), pretty much any boat with a motor or sailboats over a particular size must be licensed. I don’t recall anything in the Florida boating laws, however, that say that a boat registration precludes using it for a terrorist attack.

mpd January 4, 2007 3:30 PM

Just to be clear, the article is talking about licensing boaters, not the boats themselves.

“Though [U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen] doesn’t yet have details or formal recommendations for how a national permit system would work, he said he’d like to see boating licenses be similar to motor vehicle driver’s licenses.”

Chuck January 4, 2007 3:39 PM

The heading says licensing boats, but the head of the Coast Guard is talking about licensing boaters. To “keep track” of them. Sounds like a good RFID application. For best tracking they will need not only an implanted chip, but an omni-directional antenna mounted on the top of their head with enough of a mast to keep them visible in the troughs, and a national database to handle revocations. I hope Google Earth will have an option so that everyone can keep track of them, as well. Sailors in small boats might be allowed a mast lowering option, so as to avoid being fouled in their own lines.

Salty Dog January 4, 2007 3:49 PM

Hmm… Let’s see.

Licensing car drivers prevents car crime so licensing boaters will prevent boat crime.


Fraud Guy January 4, 2007 3:51 PM

Isn’t this the same Coast Guard that wasted $24 Billion trying to upgrade their boats? Maybe they want to track other boaters to find out how they can do it cheaper and better?

John Ridley January 4, 2007 4:19 PM

I live in Michigan, and boats are already licensed, have been for decades. My grandfather had an aluminum boat that was first licensed in 1956. I guess I’d always assumed that all watercraft was licensed.

Bob January 4, 2007 4:26 PM

Licensing boaters will decrease crime, because criminals who use cars to perform bank robberies, kidnapping, and murder don’t have drivers licenses, therefore, anyone without a boating license will be a criminal.

In some states, you have to pass a boating course in order to license your powerboat. Or more precisely, to be able to pilot a powerboat. This is a different license than a boat registration, which also varies by state.

This proposal, whether to license boaters or boats nationally, is definitely the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. The only reason I can see for it is as cash-flow for the Coast Guard. However, I’m not convinced that the costs of administering and enforcing the program will be a net positive cash flow or not. If it’s net negative (costs exceed revenues), then what? Raise license fees or increase taxes. To accomplish what, that isn’t already being taken care of by the state licensing programs (for states that have them)? Again, I see only one answer: to generate positive cash-flow for the Coast Guard. Still a stupid idea.

George January 4, 2007 4:27 PM

Inner tubes. Gotta license them inner tubes. Gotta keep them trrrrists from sneakin’ up on a nucyelar plant or a battleship in inner tubes.

bear January 4, 2007 4:54 PM

They already do it up here in Canada though not for the anti terrorist thing. They call it the “Pleasure Craft Operator Card” and I’ve got mine.

If you plan to operate a boat with a motor you will need one of these by the end of 2009. Check out for details if your interested.

Fay Kerr January 4, 2007 4:55 PM

So it’s useless… but at least we’ve given the terrorists some good ideas, on the off chance they haven’t already thought of these ideas themselves!

(OK, I’m no terrorist – I don’t even play one on TV – but I didn’t realize that LNG was that explosive. It makes sense, but I’d never thought about it before)

Joe January 4, 2007 5:16 PM

I don’t know why everybody is being so negative – I think this will make terrorists easy to find – just a simple query:

SELECT LName, FName, Addr
FROM TIA.PersonalInfo
WHERE (HasBoat=1) AND (BoatLicNum IS NULL OR BoatLicFake=1)

Alex January 4, 2007 5:16 PM

Licensing those that plan to operate a boat with a motor is a good idea ….. from a ‘safety’ point of view. However, the difference between safety and security is apparently still a difficult one.

Roy January 4, 2007 5:20 PM

To have any effect they would have to license boat passengers, which would wreck commercial boating, so that will never happen. Licensing boaters owners and operators, however, will have the benefit of boosting revenue for no good reason, and in the event a boat is used by terrorists it will aid in identifying the bodies afterwards.

Davi Ottenheimer January 4, 2007 5:31 PM

Seems to me that watercraft, let alone passengers, used in successful water-borne attacks would still lack identification regardless of this nonsense.

Remember the infamous Dogs of War and the black inflatables under cover of night? Those boats were the forerunner to the Zodiac CZ7 sold as pleasure-craft today. Incidentally a guy I know recently was driving one of these monsters full-throttle around the NY harbor. The USCG gunboats came out to investigate and after a brief talk they went away again.

That being said, it’s not uncommon for unskilled amateurs to get liquored up and drive over-powered gas guzzlers on the water into some kind of disaster. Might not be such a bad idea to license and de-license for those circumstances and risks. Maybe to start the discussion they should really be considering a license for anything that has a displacement over 20,000lbs or an engine over 200hp. Not much diff than licensing commercial-equivalent captains who say they’re operating for recreational purposes only. That’s tied to a measurable threat/vuln factor that could really save lives and reduce boating costs for everyone…or maybe that’s the wrong kind of terror on the water?

Anonymous January 4, 2007 6:13 PM


“Driving a car is considered a privilege
conferred by the state, but boating is
considered a right. It gets back to that
‘life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness’ sort of thing,”

Ah yes, the Constitution is careful to distinguish between watercraft and land vehicles.

Jilara January 4, 2007 6:49 PM

Hmm, could this be the first movements toward regulating water travel? Which would be the first step toward making it unworkable, and help control population movement? I believe that what is proposed would be a “water travel licence” similar to a passport, but required for travel by watercraft, no matter how trivial (for example, to row across the lake at summer camp). It would apply equally to those who sail/motor/row/paddle or merely are passengers.

First make it hard to travel by air, then by land, then by water?

I can’t wait for the checkpoints on the roads, similar to those in Edo-period Japan. (The shogun knew that the most effective way to control the population was to control their movements.)

Salty Dog January 4, 2007 7:07 PM


“I can’t wait for the checkpoints on the roads, similar to those in Edo-period Japan. (The shogun knew that the most effective way to control the population was to control their movements.)”

I don’t know about the USA, but here in the land of the database state (UK) we have Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems being installed and GPS tracking of all vehicles for road use taxation is seriously being considered.

The UK government would like to surpass the shoguns.

bmm6o January 4, 2007 7:32 PM

Drivers licenses have worked to prevent car bombs, right? I think it’s a good idea. I know I’ll sleep better at night! </sarcasm>

MikeC January 4, 2007 7:49 PM

This is another example of the rush to cloak more buraucracy under the catch phrase “national security.” Our big benevolent Fed just wants to know a little more about each of us. Doesn’t matter if we are terrorists or not. The USCG already has a commercial pilot/captain/master licensing program. The USCG also documents larger vessels. Smaller vessels have usually been registered by the states since they normally ply state waters. State’s should license boaters like they license automobile drivers. I see this as an unwarranted intrusion by the Fed for no gain in national security.

Dougie McGibbon January 4, 2007 7:57 PM

Rafts! Don’t forget about rafts!
I mean what’s to stop some cunning terrorist building a raft and paddling up under cover of darkness.
And what are rafts made from? Wood!
Fence in all the trees, security clearance needed for access. Ban all tree like plants and seeds from gardening centres – could be a long term plan! Even large shrubs and fertiliser!

Wylie January 4, 2007 9:10 PM

Its surprising to find that boats arent licensed consistently in the USA. I imagine its something that the Coast Guard have probably wanted to do for some time, for all the other reasons, but havnt been able to get enough state politicians to support them for various reasons.

Have you ever written a business case? You pad it with every convincing argument that will advance your cause, whether its feasible or sensible or not, just to try and convince the people with the money that it will benefit them in some way, so that they will be more likely to accept your proposal and fund it. More benefits, equals more chance that your proposal will get off the ground.

America seems obsessed with terrorism these days, so the Coast Guard trying another angle. By talking about it, they are probably testing the water so to speak, to see if this idea might sway more politicians toward their goal. I think they are a couple of years too late, but only recently it was very easy to get anything you wanted blindly passed into ferderal law, provided it had a terrorism or national security spin on it.

Davi Ottenheimer January 4, 2007 9:39 PM

“Its surprising to find that boats arent licensed consistently in the USA”

not only inconsistently licensed, but inconsistently enforced.

bring a small pleasure boat without numbers to an ocean harbor in california, and you’re highly unlikely to get any grief or notice at all.

take the same boat to a small lake, and be prepared for flashing lights, demonstration of force, etc.

i’ve heard of everything from boaters saying “i’m just in from nevada” (no reg required on smaller craft, but you have to show ID) to people cleverly peeling stickers off boats sitting dormant and putting them on their own until the tax-man moveth along.

Anonymous Coward January 4, 2007 9:58 PM

@Dougie McGibbon
Fence in all the trees, security clearance needed for access. Ban all tree like plants and seeds from gardening centres – could be a long term plan! Even large shrubs and fertiliser!
Especially Ammonium Nitrate…

Anonymous January 4, 2007 10:16 PM

I think Chuck already said this earlier: they don’t seem to be talking about licensing boats (which is done in varying states). They seem to be talking about the equivalent of a driver license for people.

Dan_Linder January 4, 2007 10:54 PM

(I posted this to the linked articles “comments” section. It’s moderated so we’ll see if this appears. — Dan)

From the first line of article:
“State governments would issue licenses to America’s 77 million recreational boaters…”

For a quick sanity check, replace “boaters” with “drivers” (i.e. automobile drivers) in the article.

* Nearly every one of the 9/11 hijackers had a valid drivers license — required to board the plane.
* Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bomber) had a valid drivers license — required to rent the van.
* Ted Kaczynski (Unibomber) had a Montana drivers license.

Rather than spend millions of dollars are going to spent to put another piece of paper in our wallets, direct them toward designing safer “outlet pipes of a nuclear power plant”, re-design doors to prevent or impede “hijackers aboard a cruise ship”, or better policing of theft of “ultra-volatile liquefied natural gas”? (All threats mentioned as validations of this proposed legislation.)

Thinking that a little piece of paper in a wallet will magically help weed out the bad guys from our world is delusional.

I agree with the sentiment that boats are every bit as dangerous as cars and should be run by a licensed individual. But please, don’t try to make this sound more important by claiming it is related to “Anti-terrorist or National Security” matters.


Dylan January 4, 2007 11:19 PM

FWIW, here in Australia you need a boater license if you are in control of a watercraft with an engine over 6hp.

Alex January 5, 2007 2:03 AM

Same in the Netherlands: for controlling a watercraft with a lengt over 15m or one that is able to go faster than 20 km/h you need a license. However, this is a safety measure to reduce the threat of accidents by unskilled boaters. I vaguely remember that driver’s licenses originally used to serve a similar purpose.

dave January 5, 2007 2:53 AM

Here I am as an info sec professional trying top persuade my bosses to part with a few grand to improve the control environment, and getting absolutely nowhere, meanwhile central governments have hundreds of millions to waste on crackpot pseudo security. Maybe I need to change tack and find some way of getting government funding for my company security.
Otherwise plan B is go for early retirement by getting some of the government money for myself.
What I want to know is how can I board the gravytrain??

Bunny January 5, 2007 5:08 AM

Oh, but can’t you see? Obviously, people who’re willing to blow themselves up would never dare use a boat without a proper license! And they can’t get licenses, either, because if they do, our mind reader machines will find out that they’re terrorists! It’s a brilliant plan!

supersnail January 5, 2007 5:43 AM

Great idea! While we are at it I have noticed that nearly 50% of terrorist attacks involve automobiles either directly as in card bombs or indirectly in that the 9/11 highjackers were driven to the airport.

So lets license car drivers as well ……………

bob January 5, 2007 6:54 AM

Require a license for every possible activity humans can exhibit and then you have a de facto national ID system for everyone over the age of 3 (big wheel/tricycle licenses)! Better yet, you have 217 national ID system subcomponents which all have slightly different spellings and data formats which will justify another monolithic data mining database to combine them! Oops, I forgot to use the magic word. ‘Counterterrorism’. There, thats better, now I dont mind paying for it or suffering because of it.

A couple of years ago they started this same type of crap for pilots. Fortunately thats (mostly) died down because all but the most dense senators were able to be convinced that airplanes obey the laws of physics.

My understanding, at least in years past, was that when an LNG tanker is on the move, they practically shut down the port to avoid a collision.

Vance January 5, 2007 8:53 AM

Before imposing a whole new initiative to protect LNG facilities, perhaps they can start actually paying attention to the existing security measures:

“Investigation revealed that the intruders had cut through the outer and inner perimeter fences and through the locked gate and gained access to the [LNG] storage tank several days before the breach was discovered. A microwave intrusion system documented the intrusions on the computer monitoring system, which should have alerted operator personnel to the intrusions. Operator personnel did not respond. In the days following, personnel conducted several routine visual inspections of the area without noting the cuts in the fences.”


meeters January 5, 2007 9:28 AM

I feel so much safer now. Next summer when my family and I are sitting on our favorite Lake Michigan beach, I’ll know that the guy doing 45 knots in his 30 foot Scarab, 20 feet from shore is not a terrorist. He’s just some drunk idiot.

Anonymous January 5, 2007 9:44 AM


I think you missed this one. The USCG is mounting machine guns on their Great Lakes vessels. They are were also planning on holding live ammo practices on the Lakes within 5 miles of shore. They have since suspended the practices because of citizen concerns.

I wonder what they expect, terrorists crossing Lake Superior from Canada in an inflatable boat?

Rich January 5, 2007 10:01 AM

Actually, the reason to license boaters is to raise money to protect Ma & Pa Smith’s Petting Zoo and Collector Rubber Band Emporium in middle-of-nowhere, state-with-high-ranking-senator-who-got-his-seniority-via-Earmarks, USA.

Like someone said, It’s All About The Children. Wouldn’t want that petting zoo to get nuked when kids are petting baby goats.

Probitas January 5, 2007 10:38 AM

When boats are outlawed, only outlaws will own boats.

Actually, it’s an established fact that boaters cannot be trusted. Just look at Bob Denver’s criminal record. It is this kind of heads up thinking from our gubmint that makes America the great place it is to live.

M January 5, 2007 10:54 AM

Why is an attack on a U.S. Navy vessel considered terrorism? Isn’t terrorism supposed to involve attacks on civilians?

Skippern January 5, 2007 11:26 AM

Their doing the right thing for the wrong reason, we who work in shipping have requested licenses for small yachts for a long time to raise skill level and therefor safety at sea.

@US Coast Guard: “In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers in a crowded harbor could use small watercraft to detonate a tanker carrying ultra-volatile liquefied natural gas, causing a powerful explosion that could kill thousands.”

Actually if you’ve studied physics and fire theory, this will not result in a large explosion. LNG are liquified, and needs time to evaporate into a flameable gas, there will be plenty of time to evacuate the area, and countermeasures can be in place long before the fire starts. Though it will hold the harbor locked for a long time to make the area safe again. Actually the same attack against a crude oil tanker will have a much larger environmental effect as much of the oil spill will contaminate the marine life for long time.

The largest risk involving terror attacks on LNG tankers are a punctiation of a tank and ignition of the escaping gas. This will result in heating of the naighbouring tanks which might in turn result in explosive decompression of cargo. Just think of it all as a superlarge shrapnel hand granade.

McGavin January 5, 2007 11:28 AM

There are only two sure things in life:

Death…. and Taxes being passed off as antiterrorism measures.

merkelcell January 5, 2007 11:28 AM

The bigger issue will be the takeover by the new Republic Govn’t of HomeLandScrty of state and municiple govn’ts.

X the Unknown January 5, 2007 12:32 PM

And, of course, we don’t have an established history of criminals (mostly drug smugglers) stealing/hijacking boats to use for their nefarious purposes.

I strongly suspect that the chances of an unlicensed terrorist boat-operator being caught are even less than the chances of a pirate drug-smuggler being caught because he’s using a stolen boat.

gfujimori January 5, 2007 1:03 PM

We need to license terrorists! If you aren’t properly registered in our database, you aren’t authorized to commit terrorist acts. Problem solved.

Anyone remember the sign in the movie Clerks? “If you plan on shoplifting, please let us know.”

Peter January 5, 2007 2:16 PM

So what kind of license do you need to pilot a hovercraft?

One that is full of eels? (sorry, Monty Python day here)

jonny s January 5, 2007 3:32 PM

It’s good to know that if you ever have an idea some people might object to, you can come up with ridiculous correlations to terrorism and then anyone that opposes you is automatically anti-american.

I believe that the 9/11 terrorists, at least at some point in their lives, had jobs. Clearly, working leads to terrorism. Therefore, I should get Mondays & Fridays off.

truenorthern January 5, 2007 4:10 PM

We already have a program to license recreational boaters in Canada. It was conveyed as a way to improve public safety by providing a way to improve the skill, knowledge, abilities of boaters.

Skippern January 6, 2007 9:26 AM

@truenorthern: “We already have a program to license recreational boaters in Canada. It was conveyed as a way to improve public safety by providing a way to improve the skill, knowledge, abilities of boaters.”

It has been like that in Europe for ages, the discussion is for how small crafts a license is needed.

@L8Shift: “In Va., getting a BUI (Boating Under the Influence) the violation is tacked on to one’s Auto drivers license…..”

What happens if you don’t have a drivers license?

No Boats for You Abdul January 6, 2007 2:35 PM

Ok, now we are all going to be forced to register a boat and all the terrorists are like, “Damn, let’s try something else.” Does anyone feel like our government is starting to make this crap up just to register us all?

Madman January 6, 2007 2:43 PM

Note that we’re TOLD that driving is a “privilege” and not a right, yet the US Constitution reserves to the individuals (and states) all rights not specifically granted to the feds, and regulating highways certainly is not mentioned in the constitution.

Unfortunately, the roads were hijacked as “commerce” and therefore could be regulated and licensed by the feds.

The only truism is that licensing both cars and drivers has not prevented car crimes or most car crashes.

Licensing is only about money and never about safety, despite the absurd notions of some posters that licenses increase safety.

Neil Z. January 7, 2007 8:25 AM

despite the absurd notions of some
posters that licenses increase safety.

Yeah, totally. Making private wanna-be boat captains spend some time learning about traffic rules and safety stuff and shit and then forcing them to pass a little multiple choice exam is totally unnecessary and will in no way whatsoever increase safety.

Thinking this a little further I come to the conclusion that pilot licenses aren’t necessary because I know this 16 year old guy who is totally awesome on MS Flight Simulator and is able to do a very steep “Sarajevo” landing approach with a 747 in a heavy snowstorm at midnight with zero visibility on his computer, a task that most commerical, government licensed pilots would fail or have failed in real life. In other words, pilot licenses do not improve safety.
Quod erat demonstrandum.
And they are unconstitutional, too. So there.

thingmaker January 7, 2007 8:52 AM

It’s worth bearing in mind that whatever positive effect this measure might have (I don’t see any, but…) is totally reliant on enforcement. That means more checks of boats on the water. It has to mean more stops by USCG, who can pretty much stop any boat at any time on pretext of a safety check.
a) It’s a way to raise revenue by licensing fees.
b) As someone already pointed out: Passengers aren’t licensed, so the measure is nearly meaningless.
c) This will lead to more LEO interference with the lawful activities of ordinary citizens – “License checks”.


Filias Cupio January 7, 2007 9:43 PM

“c) This will lead to more LEO interference with the lawful activities of ordinary citizens.”

My first translation of “LEO” was “Low Earth Orbit” – argh, it’s the orbital mind control lasers!

(Yes, I have figured out what you actually meant.)

Anonymous January 7, 2007 11:55 PM

this is what happens when we allow a president in that was not voted in by the people!!! he lost the popular vote yet here we are stuck with this administration till they ruin our country and our reputation

derf January 8, 2007 9:38 AM

Don’t most states require motorboat/jetski drivers to have their state issued automobile drivers license on them?

Dude January 9, 2007 1:04 AM

Another way to extort money from the good citizen. Let someone steal your boat and see how much of the money is spent finding it for you.

Skippern January 9, 2007 8:40 AM

@derf “Don’t most states require motorboat/jetski drivers to have their state issued automobile drivers license on them?”

How does a automobile drivers license prove you are able to handle a watercraft, knows the rules of navigation and necessary safety and survival skills? Isn’t there on its place to actually issue a motorboat license in order to ensure that people traveling on the waterways actually knows how to handle their vessels?

Would you trust the driving skills of a person driving cars on his motorboat license?

(I hold a valid automobile license aswell as navigational certificates for large ships)

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