They were the original powerboaters, ahead of the curve and ahead of their time.
Born of a wealthy sailor’s interests, tested in wartime and still a vital component of safety on the water, the United States Power Squadrons is celebrating 100 years of service.
“The secret to USPS longevity is the fraternal approach through an organized focus on boating safety,” says George Gilbert, commander of USPS District 1, which comprises 13 squadrons from Westerly, R.I., to Milford, Conn. “The USPS is not the same organization now as it was in 1914 and we will become a different organization than we are now.”
Today the USPS lists nearly 40,000 members in more than 400 community squadrons, including a recent uptick in membership.
“Our membership numbers tend to trend with the rise and fall of the economy and the dependent fate of the recreational boating industry,” says Greg Scotten, publications coordinator for the USPS. “The good news is that our volume of services is growing, so our services are expanding.”
The organization kicked off its centennial anniversary with a new website (www.usps.org) redesigned for easier navigation and much more content. Also launching this year are new on-the-water training programs that consist of an eight-hour seminar with a combination of classroom and hands-on training. Video simulation programs allow students to visualize maneuvers before experiencing them on the water — much like military and merchant marine training.
“We are working with industry leaders in the boat dealer network to jump-start this program,” Gilbert says.
An FDR brainchild
The USPS was founded at the suggestion of then undersecretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Feb. 2, 1914, at a national meeting at the New York Yacht Club.
Roosevelt was impressed with the “Power Squadron” safety programs developed for the new phenomena — recreational vessels powered by engines — by businessman Roger Upton at the Boston Yacht Club in Marblehead, Mass.
Upton, a sailor enamored of the reliability of the new motorboats, which did not rely on wind for movement, developed programs inspired by Navy training to provide navigation and safety instruction to fellow club members.
Roosevelt saw war on the horizon and concluded that a well-drilled civilian naval fleet could serve the nation in an auxiliary capacity — and he was right. During two world wars the organization provided training services to the Navy.
The USPS picked up a passionate advocate in publisher Charles F. Chapman, who used his platform as editor of Motor Boat magazine to spread word of Upton’s work through the yachting community. Chapman became a co-founder of the USPS and author of the standard boating reference “Chapman Piloting & Seamanship.”
Chapman admired the training and drills that members were put through and saw the organization as the venue to bring credibility to these new “stink potters.”
Outside the war years the USPS focused on recreational boating safety and developed its mainstay communications link, The Ensign, which grew from a one-page sheet at the Boston Yacht Club to the quarterly national magazine it is today.
A watchdog role
Over the years, the USPS also became an important ally of the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
“We are the major source for NOAA’s nautical chart updates and ‘warnings,’ for which it treats us as ‘one of its own,’ ” Scotten says.
The organization is known as the nation’s major source of non-punitive, advisory voluntary vessel safety checks under the Coast Guard, and its members perform thousands of the inspections each year.
Post-9/11, the USPS has become a major partner with the Department of Homeland Security in educating the boating public to report suspicious occurrences on the water.
More recently, the organization has been working with the Coast Guard, as well as state and local boating law enforcement departments, to form patrols, safety watches and rescue missions.
“Our organization is built on service to others and has always tapped into that altruistic part of the American spirit,” Scotten says. “The interests that attract our membership go beyond our educational prowess and reputation for outstanding courses.”
But it is those courses that epitomize the Power Squadron to tens of thousands of recreational boaters who have taken them.
Among those are classes in seamanship, navigational charting, marine communication, long-distance cruising, reading weather conditions, the latest in marine electronics and engine maintenance, electronic navigation and the backup skills of the sextant.
“While technology in recreational boating is expanding and awe-inspiring, it is important for boaters to understand what the technology is telling them and how to check it with the basics,” Scotten says. “A number of times I have lost navigational electronics and was very thankful for my charting skills.”
Scotten says a constant challenge to USPS educators is developing an electronic navigation curriculum in a subject where hardware and information are changing faster than instructional materials can be developed.
Full steam ahead
Although the USPS enters its second century embracing new technology and on-the-water training as teaching tools, its long-standing reputation for delivering a solid foundation of instruction to recreational boaters has not been lost on government agencies.
“Because the United States Coast Guard and many allied state agencies have seen a decline in recreational boating fatalities among those who take our courses, they are seeking to make the courses of the Power Squadrons and of the Coast Guard Auxiliary mandatory for operating recreational vessels,” Scotten says. “This concept is gaining traction and would mean a significant increase in our responsibilities.”
Senior officials in the Coast Guard have said they favor a national boater certificate based on an exam proctored by either the Coast Guard Auxiliary or USPS, he adds.
The USPS is working with the Coast Guard to develop a system for certifying recreational boat operators in a parallel concept to the licenses for commercial operators. The idea has grown with the creation of on-the-water elective sections attached to each central course and a separation of skills certification for inland navigation, coastal navigation and offshore navigation.
The organization is also developing specialized endorsements at each level for such skills as paddling and sail. Some European countries are looking at the USPS documents as meeting their own federal requirements, Scotten says.
“The 21st century will have new challenges with the ever-changing and growing use of technology,” Scotten says. “At the same time, reports of personal watercraft accidents and of canoeing fatalities are on the rise. Such data make us realize that the future must involve both our ‘heads’ in the new technologies and our ‘feet’ addressing current boating safety needs.”
During this anniversary year numerous commemorative events are taking place, beginning with a centennial anniversary national meeting that was held at the end of January at the Hyatt Regency in Jacksonville, Fla.
The USPS annual meeting in Raleigh, N.C., in March saw the launch of the Boating Safety Virtual Trainer — an interactive, simulation-based boating safety program designed for the USPS by a company called Virtual Driver Interactive.
The boating experience simulator allows people to practice exercises such as docking and maneuvering a slalom course, and it features three computer screens with a rotating field of vision, a steering wheel and a Mercury Marine throttle. The simulator reacts to variable settings for trim, current and wind.
The simulator was funded by a Coast Guard grant, with contributions from the National Safe Boating Council, the BoatUS Foundation and Brunswick Corp. and its Mercury Marine and Boston Whaler subsidiaries.
A simulator does not replace on-the-water training, the USPS stresses; however, it provides a close approximation that allows students to navigate on-the-water scenarios in which they contemplate and make decisions using critical thinking.
The training unit is the first of its kind in the nation. Five units have been funded, and they became available for USPS use beginning with the International Boating & Water Safety Summit in Nashville, Tenn., in April.
“Boating safety is the priority of the United States Power Squadrons,” project manager Lisa Herndon says. “Offering this hands-on simulator will be a fun experience among new and experienced boaters alike.”
The USPS this year also entered a partnership with Sea Tow and the Sea Tow Foundation that offers boaters enhanced safety resources and membership discounts.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue.