Published July 06. 2014 4:00AM Updated July 10. 2014 9:55AM
Correction, July 10, 2014: The story has been updated to clarify state and federal laws regarding water vessels.
A volunteer for the U.S. Power Squadron since 2002, 79-year-old John Robinson has completed about 6,500 vessel inspections in the past decade.
That makes him one of the most active volunteer inspectors, and he hasn't stopped yet. He's still visiting marinas and boat launches to offer his expertise to any boater willing to listen.
The Vessel Safety Checks conducted by squadron volunteers through a cooperative program with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary are free of charge, and there are no consequences when a boat fails.
"We just want to make boating as safe as possible," Robinson said. "We want people to go and have a good time on the water, but we want them to be safe out there."
When a deficiency is found, a boat owner is alerted and advised to take care of the problem. When a vessel or small craft meets all safety criteria, it gets a decal reflecting that.
Robinson has a checklist of requirements, depending on the size and type of vessel. He inspects all types of boats, but in recent years has focused on paddle craft -kayaks, canoes and paddle boards.
Eleanor Mariani, past commander of the New London Power Squadron and director of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's boating division, said the popularity of paddle craft make those inspections all the more important.
"There are 103,000 registered boats in the state and that does not include canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards - and those numbers are exploding," she said.
There are slight nuances between state boating regulations and the U.S. Coast Guard's rules of the sea, but all of the requirements are aimed at safety.
Under state and federal law, canoes and kayaks are considered vessels and therefore once launched must carry a sound-producing device such as a whistle and a life jacket for each passenger. Stand-up paddleboards are only considered vessels once they leave the beach area, and then paddlers are required to carry a life jacket and sound-producing device. And state regulations mandate that operators of paddle craft wear a life jacket when they are on the water between Oct. 1 and May 31. There have been two recent fatalities in Long Island Sound with people in paddle craft who were not wearing life jackets when they were required to, Mariani said.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, when a boating accident occurs, the chance of drowning is 1 in 66 for people wearing personal flotation devices versus 1 in 11 for those without them. And another Coast Guard statistic: Every 2½ hours, someone is injured or killed in a boating accident.
Federal law requires that there be a life jacket for every person on a vessel, and boats 16 feet or longer have to have at least one throwable flotation device as well, such as a life ring. State regulations vary, but most require children 12 and under to wear a life jacket at all times while on the water and above deck.
But it's not just personal flotation devices that squadron volunteers check during inspections. They also look for things like flares, fire extinguishers, anchors and navigation lights, registration and display numbers, ventilation, sound-producing devices and the vessel's overall condition.
Tony Salzarulo, education officer for Power Squadron District 1, which comprises 13 districts in southeastern New England, said boat owners and operators should welcome the inspections, not fear them.
"One of the hardest hurdles we have to overcome is that people say 'No thanks' when they see us because they are afraid they'll get a ticket. But we're not law enforcement. There are no tickets," said Salzarulo, who has been involved with the squadron for 25 years, since first taking a basic boating course with his son.
"If people see us out there doing inspections, they should come fetch us and ask us to inspect their boat. We give free advice, and there is no enforcement. That needs to be emphasized," he said.
Robinson, a lifelong boater who gave up his own craft more than two decades ago, is a member of the Old Saybrook squadron. He gets great pleasure, he said, from visiting boat yards, public launch ramps and marinas to offer his services.
"I just hope the person I talk to listens and takes the advice," he said, adding, "I do this because I feel like I owe somebody something for all the good times I've had out there."
Mariani said the Power Squadron classes are also valuable to mariners.
"One of the best kept secrets about them is the excellent courses they offer that are open to the general public," she said. "The quality of the education - boating safety, navigation, maintenance and others -is really excellent."
Organized in 1914, the nonprofit educational organization comprises boaters who give back by promoting safe boating through education. Across the country and its territories, there are 45,000 members organized into 450 squadrons.
According to the U.S. Power Squadron website, its primary objectives are community service, continuing education and enjoying the friendship and camaraderie of fellow members.
Now, at the height of the local boating season, squadron members want as many mariners as possible to consider having their vessel inspected.
"It's just a wonderful way for people to make sure they have all of their equipment on board and that it meets the requirements," Mariani said.
"People may not realize that their flares have expired or that their lights aren't working," Salzarulo said. "And we can make sure that life jackets are in working order and that they're accessible. From an equipment perspective, we can make sure all is in order."
Guys like John Robinson are more than ready to help.
"I just hang out at these places, or respond when a boater calls," he said.
To request an inspection, visit the Power Squadron website, www.powersquadron.org, search for District 1, click on the squadron closest to you, then look for Vessel Safety Check and fill out the information form there.
Or, look for John Robinson at a boat launch or marina in the East Lyme or Saybrook area.