The voices of recreational boaters: Advocacy groups keep boating interests relevant

STATEWIDE — With  more than 716,000 recreational boats officially registered, according to published records, in the state of California in 2014, several groups with boaters interests in mind have come together to serve as a mouthpiece for boat owners on a local and statewide level.

Recreational boaters in Southern California have at least one dozen advocacy groups representing them locally and at the state and federal level. Broad boating interests are represented by groups such as BoatU.S., National Marine Merchants Association (NMMA), U.S. Sailing, Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF) and Recreational Boaters of California (RBOC).While Marina del Rey Boating Coalition, Dana Point Boaters Association (DPBA) and Boaters 4 Dana Point Harbor, among others, advocate for recreational boating interests at specific harbors or marinas.

Other advocacy groups include Western Boater Safety Group, Marine Recreation Association, States Organizations for Boating Access (SOBA) and Westwind Sailing.

These groups have a varying degree of activity, with some regularly going to bat for recreational boaters.

Harbor Specific

DPBA President Rodger Beard said his group plays a vital role in advocating on behalf of recreational boaters in Dana Point Harbor.

“Recreational boater advocacy has been and continues to be a significant issue and a very real need,” Beard said. “The Dana Point Boaters Association fills a huge void.”

Beard said Orange County officials regularly overlook the interests of recreational boaters, hence the need for them to have an advocacy group.

“The boaters we represent are paddlers, kayakers, fisherman, cruisers, power boaters and sailors. It doesn’t matter whether these boaters have a boat in the water, a boat in dry storage somewhere, or perhaps they just enjoy and care about recreational boating. We seek their input and direction on an ongoing basis and we try very hard to represent their best interests,” Beard said. “Our goal is … to be effective harbor management and redevelopment planning stakeholders. Our operating agenda is … to always be at the table when decisions are being made about the operations and future of our beautiful harbor.”

Orange County has been planning to renovate and revitalize Dana Point Harbor for decades. DPBA has been one of two boater advocacy groups aiming to have boating interests represented in the county’s renovation plans. 

“Dozens and dozens of quite significant changes have been made to the harbor’s redevelopment plans and the direction here has been decidedly for the good. However, our job will never be done. Recreational boaters will always need their spokesman, especially during the next few years ahead,” Beard said. 

State Level

RBOC advocates on behalf of California’s recreational boaters at the state level. Based upon the Census’ population estimates, about 1.8 percent of California residents owned a recreational boat last year.

The advocacy group lobbies state and federal legislators to enact legislation benefiting boaters or including boater interests in broader proposals. For example, RBOC leaders advocated and received support for Senate Bill 941 (SB 941). The bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year and will require all boat operators to complete a sanctioned education program and pass an examination.

David Kennedy, the senior program coordinator with BoatU.S. said RBOC is one of the most active boater advocacy groups at the state level in the country. BoatU.S. and RBOC often work together on advocacy issues.

“RBOC is somewhat of a unique animal. It’s one of the biggest voices for boaters,” Kennedy said of the group, which was founded in 1968. “It’s a great resource.”

Legislative advocate Jerry Desmond, who represents RBOC in Sacramento, said the boating interest group addresses lawmakers on issues directly impacting California’s recreational boaters.

Last month, RBOC provided recreational boaters with an official update of legislation currently circulating in Sacramento that if signed into law, would directly impact the boating public. 

Three bills — personal floatation devices, removal and disposal of marine debris and an oversight of invasive aquatic plants — have earned RBOC’s support. A complete list of state issues is available at

Broadly, RBOC advocates for boaters on issues such as fuel blends, copper and Total Maximum Daily Load, where a vessel can navigate and who can operate a boat. RBOC’s leadership also maintains a watchful eye on how the state spends money collected from boaters (via fees and taxes), Desmond said.

He added boaters should take the initiative to stay in regular contact with their elected representatives, especially because term limits result in a constant turnover of legislators.

“We encourage boaters to get to know their legislators and become involved in the process,” Desmond said, a sentiment echoed by Kennedy and RBOC president Greg Gibeson.

Gibeson added boaters should take the time to understand federal, state and local issues and how they are directly impacted by laws. One federal issue making headlines in recent weeks is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Gibeson said boaters should be engaged in the RFS discussion, since its ethanol mandates will directly impact boats. Regionally, copper restrictions in San Diego and Los Angeles are another issue RBOC has tackled. In Northern California, RBOC worked with a Marin County congressman to speak on behalf of recreational boaters on dredging issues in navigational waters in and around San Francisco Bay.

“We need to be fluent in each region’s problems,” Gibeson said, pointing out San Francisco’s environmental requirements for dredging are stricter than other areas in California.

Supporting RBOC’s efforts is BoatU.S. Kennedy said the national advocacy group regularly communicates with national lawmakers and interacts with RBOC on specific issues.

BoatU.S., Kennedy added, leverages its relationships with groups such as RBOC to gain support of federal legislators. The more active California’s recreational boaters are with groups such as RBOC, Kennedy said, the more effective BoatU.S. can be in advancing the boating public’s interest in Washington, D.C.

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