Taking a step toward boating safety

John Martino was not pleased when he saw where organizers of this year's New York Boat Show had stuck his booth inside the cavernous Javits Center earlier this month. He was in a distant corner, far enough from the main flow of foot traffic that he could have been a few blocks west in the Hudson River.

Then again, those trying out what the founder of the Annapolis School of Seamanship was unveiling — a Dutch-made simulator that had them navigating a boat in all types of conditions — might have thought they, too, were in the middle of the city's main waterway.

In the case of the Vstep simulator, boot it up and they will come.

"I pulled up a scenario, there's New York harbor and the boat's in the harbor, it was like a magnet," Martino said last week as he prepared to show off his new five-figure toy during the three-day Baltimore Boat Show that ends Sunday at the Convention Center. "We put 50 hours on the simulator during the show in five days. It didn't get a break. There was never a time when somebody wasn't driving it."

Martino, who founded the Annapolis school 10 years ago, realizes that some trying out the simulator "were drawn to it because it looked like some elaborate video game," but others were attracted by an opportunity to actually get the feel of navigating a computer-driven boat in the safety of a landlocked convention center before they took a real one out on the water.

"We did have one guy who walked up to the booth and was interested in a basic navigation class and said that he and his wife wanted to get into boating and they didn't know where to start," Martino recalled. "I started talking with him about what would be a good starting point. We walked over to the simulator and he was able to drive the boat onto the East River and down around Battery Park and then on to the Hudson. He was ecstatic. It was a clear indication to me that this was going to help people get started in boating."

Martino makes an analogy between buying a boat for the first time and buying a car.

"Imagine if you had to buy a car for the first time without having to learn how to drive," he said.

He also made an analogy between driving a boat safely and driving a car safely.

"Good, safe boating is kind of invisible," he said. "It's like a good driver. There's nothing spectacular about a good driver driving down the road, keeping a safe distance. It's the ones who drive poorly who get most of the attention. Imagine if people could drive cars and didn't have to take any kind of license test. That's kind of where we are [in boating]."

The venue changed during the past week to Baltimore, but local boaters were just as impressed with Martino's simulator as their New York counterparts were. Not only did the three screens provide a wide-angle view of the New York harbor, but there were also screens to display the speed and direction the boat was going.

"It shows the new electronics, and a lot of people are scared of the electronics," Larry Leicht, a veteran boater who lives in Pasadena, said as he watched a novice navigate the East and Hudson rivers, in daylight and at night, without crashing. "It's realistic — not a lot of crazies out there."

Leicht, who began boating in 1974 on Middle River, now limits most of his activities to weekdays or nights when the waterways are not crowded. There were more boating fatalities (25) last year in Maryland than there had been in a decade, according to the Natural Resources Police.

"Personally I think it's just people being reckless, not knowing the regulations, the markers," Leicht said. "You just shake your head sometimes."

Chuck Gambo of Parkville, whose Baltimore County plastics company makes parts for boats, said simulation "is a valuable tool, people should be more alert on the water … the water is so dangerous."

Marylanders born after July 1, 1972, are required to take an eight-hour course to get their boating license, though many choose to take it online. Jeff White, a reserve officer from the Natural Resources Police, said that even he did not have enough training when he was assigned to go undercover on a powerboat on the Chesapeake Bay a few years back.

"The first time I got into that boat, I was in over my head," White said. "If you don't know how to handle the boat, you've got a problem."

That's where Martino's simulators might come in handy.

Martino said he learned to drive 500-ton ships on simulators "but no one has ever brought this technology to the recreational boating market before." Not that your average weekend sailor is going to be able to afford the most basic Vstep, which costs around $10,000, but it now can be used by Martino and others who run local sailing and boating schools.

It fits with the purpose of Martino's school, which he said is to bring "professional-level training to recreational boaters." It is something Martino said he never had as he progressed from a recreational boater outside Philadelphia, where he grew up, to someone who spent a few years sailing 100-foot schooners from Maine to the Caribbean.

Martino said safety is at the heart of his mission, given that Maryland, like many other states, does not require many of its boaters and sailors to be licensed. He said his classes are "hands-on" and give "skills-based" training.

"We don't just lecture on how to take care of your diesel engine, we'll work procedures on an engine," said Martino, who ran a boater-safety class Thursday and Friday nights at the boat show. "In our emergency classes, we'll talk about fire issues, but they'll also put out an actual fire with a fire extinguisher. It's eye-opening."

Secure in the comfort of the Baltimore Convention Center, those trying out Martino's new toy could eventually take what they learn out on the Chesapeake later this year, when the weather is more conducive. But sunny, warm days can suddenly turn ominously dark and windy. Those who have been on Vstep might find a surge of confidence as they guide their boat to a safe harbor.

"You can start with a clear day with calm weather, then make it a little choppy or rain that affects their visibility or nighttime — you can progress the student and you're doing it in a controlled environment," Martino said. "It really makes it real for them."


Progressive Baltimore Boat Show

When: Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Convention Center

Admission: $10 (free for age 15 and younger)

Seminar Schedule

(all seminars will be held in the lobby)

11 a.m.: Intro to Operating a boat

12 p.m.: What knot to know: Securing your investment

1 p.m.: Financing a boat in today's economy

3 p.m.: Question and Answer period

There will also be a viewing area for the AFC championship game inside the convention center.

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