Clarifying the Rules of the Nautical Highway
By Anthony F. Hall
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Following Kayaker’s Death on Lake George, Change in Law Sought to Protect Paddlers, Rowers
Conventional wisdom holds that powerboats must yield to kayaks, canoes and rowboats.
Conventional wisdom, however, is wrong, at least as a matter of law.
According to Queensbury Town Judge Bob McNally (who also happens to be a partner in the Lake George law firm of Stafford, Carr, McNally), New York State’s navigation law does not grant the right of way to all smaller, non-motorized boats.
In a Town Court decision issued in March, McNally wrote that what the state law actually says is, “When a mechanically propelled vessel shall meet a sailing vessel proceeding in such direction as to involve risk of collision, the sailing vessel shall have the right of way.”
According to the navigation law, in other words, the right of way is given only to vessels powered by sails, a class of boats that that excludes kayaks, canoes and rowboats.
As a result, McNally essentially declared Donald Peletier, the 73-year-old Queensbury man whose powerboat collided with a kayaker in a 2010 accident that left a Troy man dead, not guilty of the only violation with which he had been charged, Failure to Yield Right of Way.
“The Court can do no more and no less than apply the language as it is written. The Court declines to impose an interpretation on the statute at variance with the plain language of Navigation Law, particularly in view of the express exclusion of kayaks from the provisions of the Navigation Law,” McNally wrote.
According to Saratoga County District Attorney Jim Murphy, the special prosecutor appointed by Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan to the case, the statute should be revised to include kayaks and other non-motorized craft.
“Our assumptions that these boats have the right of way are inconsistent with the law as it currently stands,” said Murphy.
Murphy has announced that he and other District Attorneys in New York State will ask the legislature to amend the law.
“The legislative committee of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York is drafting legislation that will be submitted to legislators for their review,” said Murphy.
“We look forward to seeing the draft legislation from the District Attorneys and we will certainly take a close look at it,” said New York State Senator Betty Little.
“It’s a serious issue; we would definitely consider supporting legislation that will protect boaters,” said Neil Woodworth, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s executive director.
Ike Wolgin, the owner of the Lake George Kayak Company in Bolton Landing commented, “whether kayakers have the right of way or not, we advise people renting kayaks from our shop to stay out of the way of power boats. We tell them, ‘you may see the power boater, but that doesn’t mean he sees you.’ But it would be logical to revise the statute so that’s clear what the rules are for everyone.”
Following the collision between Peletier’s boat and the kayak paddled by 62-year-old Peter G. Snyder of Troy, Peletier was charged by the Warren County Sheriff’s Department with Speeding and Reckless Operation of a Vessel, a misdemeanor.
A Warren County Grand Jury reduced the charge to Failure to Yield Right of Way.
“The Grand Jury ultimately found after hearing all the evidence that neither “reckless operation” nor “speeding” were appropriate charges and modified the charge that the police originally lodged against Mr. Peltier,” Murphy said.
“There are no witnesses that indicate that Mr. Peltier’s boat was speeding or traveling in excess of between 5 to 10 miles per hour. Further there are no witnesses that indicate that Mr. Peltier was operating his boat in a reckless or erratic manner,” said Murphy.
Snyder drowned after the boat’s propeller struck him in the head and spine. Snyder was kayaking with his wife, Bonita J. Hagan, when they saw the powerboater approaching and raised their paddles to alert him to their presence. Rough water and high waves may have obstructed Peletier’s vision, said Warren County Sheriff Bud York.