Two organizations set national standards for boating education in the United States. The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) sets standards for classroom-based education. In many states, boat operators are required to take a NASBLA-approved course to operate a power boat. There is strong data that demonstrates completing a NASBLA-approved boating course improves boating safety. The second organization, the National On-Water Standards panel, was formed about 8 years ago. Operating under a US Coast Guard grant, the NOWS team established a set of standards for skills-based on-water boating education. Two long-time scouting volunteers (Wayne Stacey, recently retired from the Coast Guard’s Office of Boating Safety, and Robin Pope, Sea Scouting’s national paddlesport specialist) were directly involved in the formation of these on-water standards. Pope also serves on NASBLA’s Education Standards Panel.
Both the NASBLA knowledge standards and the NOWS skills standards went through a rigorous development and review process that included public comment and evaluation by subject matter experts. NOWS standards developers further included on-water trials of the standards by both skilled and novice boaters, to further ensure the validity of the standards. As a result of this rigorous process, both sets of standards were recently approved as American National Standards.
How does that affect Sea Scouting?
Sea Scout’s Small-Boat Handler award requires coverage of all the material required for a NASBLA approved course, as well as coverage of additional material. In fact, as noted on the Small-Boat Handler outline, completion of a NASBLA-approved course is a terrific way to meet many of the award’s requirements while also meeting the legal requirements to operate a boat in most states. Scouts who earn the Small-Boat Handler award can be confident that this material represents not just what Scouting’s leaders think they should know, but also represent what some of the world’s leading boating programs think they should know.
That knowledge, however, doesn’t mean the boater can actually operate a boat, and that’s where the NOWS program fits in. The National On-Water Standards describe expert consensus as to what a beginning boater should actually be able to do on the water. When the Small-Boat Handler on-water skills are compared with the National On-Water Standards, it’s not surprising that the two are a close match. The take-home message for Sea Scouts is that earning the Small-Boat Handler award provides proof that they have both the knowledge and skill needed to operate a boat in entry level conditions. The Small Boat Handler bar on your uniform may not look like much, but it clearly says that a Sea Scout is more than someone who’s just interested in boats – it says that they are a boater. It’s an award every Sea Scout should pursue.