PITTSBURGH – They jumped into the lake from a pontoon boat, and as they resurfaced, yellow self-inflatable jackets appeared, hugging their necks and chests.
“I can’t believe we get paid to jump in the water, ride on a boat and teach people this course. I’m enjoying this. This is better than I expected,” said Nicole Govan, the Northern Area park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District.
The Pittsburgh District employees smiled as they swam back to the shore. Others laughed as they watched one another attempt to climb back onto a boat without using a ladder.
“This is harder than it looks!” a park ranger admitted as she hooked a leg over the edge of the boat and struggled to pull herself up and over.
Joe Arnett, one of the motorboat instructors and a park ranger with the district, watched the class of students in the water from a pontoon boat.
“Inevitably, there’s an individual in every class who turns their nose up at the idea of getting in the water, but once everybody gets in, they have a great time,” he said.
The dip into Crooked Creek Lake, at Ford City, Pennsylvania, was not just for the enjoyment of the great outdoors. It fulfilled a few requirements during a three-day course on motorboat operations. The course is designed to teach park rangers, maintenance mechanics, lock operators and anyone else who is required to operate a motorboat as part of their duties.
Jumping into the water with inflatable life jackets is necessary to certify anyone using them in the future. The course also requires a 100-yard swim and a “self-rescue” event to ensure boat operators can get themselves out of the water safely if they fall in.
The class included 18 students and five instructors, making up the largest motorboat class ever taught within the district. For years, it was a struggle to find just two or three instructors available to teach the course, said Arnett, indicating the growing emphasis on the program.
It was also the first time this course included employees other than park rangers. Park rangers operate boats for patrols, but maintenance mechanics and lock operators need the course as well.
“We’re the largest provider of water-based recreation. We have all these reservoirs. We have all these locks and flood-risk management projects. For all the work we do on the water, we need to train our employees,” said Brian Holtzinger, the district motorboat coordinator who organized the training for the district.
During the 24-hour course, employees learned about boat maintenance, safety regulations, boat launching, docking and handling. The handling portion included obstacle courses: a serpentine, a transition slalom, an emergency stop, and a five-point turn, all while avoiding buoys.
“A lot of these students are new to operating a boat in general. Not everyone here has a vessel in their private life, so how do you expect an employee to be able to carry out their duties if they have never been trained to operate a piece of equipment?” said Holtzinger.
Driving a boat is not like driving a car, Holtzinger reminded. There are no brakes. The boat can either go forward or in reverse. Currents and wakes can affect driving. There are no seatbelts, and a sudden turn could force the pilot or a passenger overboard.
“It can be dangerous,” Holtzinger said.
The course can help save lives and make employees more proficient in their jobs, he said.
“Rangers have to do boat patrols. Our biggest reason for being here is for public safety and public service. With that, we all want to be competent boat operators. When we’re out telling people the rules of the waterways, making sure they’re safe, we want to set an example for them,” said Govan.
Before attending the motorboat course, students must first complete a state-issued safe boating certificate. People must complete a safety course either in class or online, which Govan said offers a good foundation, but it is not sufficient for boaters handling a vessel professionally.
“Students took that safety course, and they come here, and we gave them a pretest, and nobody really did very well on that. Then as soon as we started incorporating the hands-on learning portion, people started getting it and putting that book knowledge together with real-life experience,” said Govan.
Following the three-day course, instructors also taught a smaller, eight-hour refresher class. The refresher is required every five years, and it serves as an ongoing booster to help ensure skills learned on the water stay on the water. The instructors who taught the course said they do it because they enjoy passing on their experience and knowledge to others.
“I literally grew up on Pennsylvania’s largest freshwater lake, Conneaut Lake … so I enjoy it. It’s maybe one of the few things that I’m good at, so it’s good to come here and quote-unquote ‘play in a boat’ and show other people the right and wrong ways, and share your skills,” said Arnett.