In May and June, the South Florida Operations Office hosted a 32-hour motorboat licensing course and two 8-hour refresher courses at the W.P. Franklin Lock Recreation Area on the Okeechobee Waterway. Thirteen Jacksonville District employees participated in the program, designed to ensure that operators are adequately trained, properly tested and licensed prior to the official operation of any Corps boat or vessel less than 26 feet in length.
“This is no easy course,” said instructor Tim Loftis. “It is challenging, and the people who receive the certification are knowledgeable and able to handle a boat competently. They are well-prepared to safely perform their duties in a broad variety of water-related missions.”
All motorboat instructors must be graduates of the 40-hour U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Motorboat License Examiner Training Course. To maintain their certification, they must participate as an instructor in at least one 24-hour motorboat training course or 8-hour refresher course every three years. Instructors this year included Loftis and Robert Schnell from the South Florida Operations Office and park rangers John Chassey from the Ortona Lock Recreation Area and Art Ruebenson from the St. Lucie Lock Recreation Area, who usually coordinates the annual training.
“I like being an instructor because I do a lot of boating at work and on my own. I own my own boat and do a lot of fishing,” said Loftis. “I love teaching others to operate a boat properly. It makes it safer for everyone else out there.”
Operators of Corps boats and vessels less than 26 feet in length are required to successfully complete a 24-hour training course and be licensed prior to official operation of a Corps vessel. The course offered at W.P. Franklin provided more intensive instruction than the minimum required by regulation, allowing enough time for participants to be successful and feel comfortable with handling any situation that may arise on the water.
The course is generally offered in the spring and summer and requires some advance planning. Students have to do a lot of work prior to taking the course – they must have 10 hours of boat experience with a licensed operator, take an online class and pass a test before they even enter the classroom. After the training, they must pass another written exam and demonstrate proficiency in all areas of instruction before they can be licensed.
Operations Division students in the recent 32-hour course included biologists Angie Huebner, Nicole Liette, Jessica Spencer and David Lattuca from the Invasive Species Management Branch; as well as geodesists Andrew “Kevin” Smith and Matt Staley, and Victor Wilhelm from the Surveying and Mapping Branch.
Graham Thompson, South Florida Operations Office, obtained his Corps certification and also holds a U.S. Coast Guard master tender license for vessels of 100 tons or less. He operates the tug boats Leitner and Chobee. Whenever dewatering is required for lock repairs or maintenance, tugs may be required to push barge-mounted cranes into place. They are also used in performing various emergency operations.
Licensed motorboat operators must also complete an 8-hour refresher course every five years to retain their license. Students taking the refresher course included Water Management Branch engineer Jonathan Jenkins and engineering technician Mark Whitson, as well as engineering equipment operators James Hart and Mike Hinz and structural engineering technician Chester “Wayne” Sullivan, South Florida Operations Office.
The training came at just the right time for Liette, a new biologist in the South Florida Operations Office. As one of her duties, Liette will use an airboat to conduct pre- and post-treatment surveys for invasive aquatic plant species on Lake Okeechobee. Obtaining a motorboat license was just the first step on the way to achieving her airboat operator license. Now she must accumulate 20 hours of operating time, or “stick time,” with a licensed airboat operator before she can take the class and exams.
“We use boats to do surveys for aquatic invasive plants on the St. Johns River and Lake Okeechobee. I also use boats to access some of the dredge spoil islands where we treat terrestrial invasive plants,” said Spencer. “The Motorboat Operator course is the most valuable training that I have had while working for the government. It provides you with valuable knowledge and real life skills that you can use on the job and in your personal life. We were taught many practical skills, such as docking, launching and retrieving, trailering and close-quarter maneuvering. It was a challenging course, but very rewarding.”
“I find it reassuring to know that I am fully capable of handling a boat in ways that are not of a routine nature,” said Sullivan. “I do random and regularly scheduled inspections of the structures surrounding Lake Okeechobee, along with the contributory culverts on the adjoining flow ways. Most of the inspections are done from land, but at least once a year I feel that it is imperative to inspect the areas by water, which allows me to see any obstructions that may affect the waterways.”
“I primarily work with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle-acquired data to create geographic information system products such as imagery mosaics and maps, some of which are used in Google Earth for species identification, levee inspections, construction activities and other environmental restoration projects,” said Wilhelm. “This training is important for me to have so I can operate boats and access our sites. I thought the most valuable part of the course was getting experience on the water maneuvering a variety of different types and sizes of boats.”
“I needed the training since I work in the hydrographic survey section. I spend the majority of my time on a number of different boats,” said Smith. “Now, when needed, I can also operate our smaller survey vessels. I thought the training was great. The small class size allowed for one-on-one time with the instructors and I received hands-on training on a number of different vessels.”
Classroom instruction included boat orientation, required safety equipment, aids to navigation, “rules of the road” and marlinespike, the art of tying bowline, cleat-wrap and clove-hitch knots.
Practical course work involved a 100-yard swim test while wearing a personal flotation device, emergency rescue procedures, trailering, launching, and retrieving of vessels, docking, towing and anchoring procedures, boat and trailer maintenance, fire suppression and operating vessels on four different maneuvering courses to demonstrate the student’s abilities to handle vessels with different hull configurations.
Students were required to pass a written exam and demonstrate competence of the practical exercises before being issued a motorboat operators license. The intensive course of instruction proved successful and everyone who participated received a license.