They might not be able to drive a car legally, but that won’t stop them from operating a boat.
By the time seventh-graders at Southold schools advance to eighth grade, they’ve already received a state certification in boating — a mandatory part of the school curriculum for over a decade.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: This year, the class performed better than ever, obtaining a 90 percent pass ratio on the exam, Southold teacher Jason Wesnofske said.
Mr. Wesnofske, who teaches the 10-week American Boating Class, developed by the United States Power Squadron, said the program is exclusive to two school districts in Suffolk County: Southold and Northport-East Northport.
“They see us at the right time,” he said, “since they start in January and by the time it gets warm, they get their boating certificate, and the course ends at the beginning of National Boater Safety week,” which was May 18-24.
During the course, students learn about life jacket safety, navigation, directional terms and more. To earn certification, students must score 80 or above on the final exam.
This year, 68 students received their certifications from Captain Fred Smith of Peconic Bay Power Squadron, a unit of the U.S. Power Squadron. Capt. Smith has also taught boating classes at Southold Free Library.
“He comes in and kicks off our stuff, and he gives us the benchmarks and checks, but he’s the one that actually certifies them,” Mr. Wesnofske said.
Teacher Matt Pfister, who’s been working the waterfront with his father since he was a child, said about 25 to 50 percent of the students enrolled in the class own a family boat or have sailing experience.
“A lot of them bring in their own stories and we try to feed off of that to kind of get them introduced,” he said. “It’s all about getting them confident with the rules of the road, so to speak, and getting them acquainted with what they’re going to do.”
After successfully completing the course, some students composed letters thanking Capt. Smith for their certificates.
Seventh-grader Grace Zehil plans to use her certification this summer to become an instructor at Southold Yacht Club and “go boating into Greenport or Shelter Island for ice cream.”
“It will be a great summer now that I am able to drive a boat,” Grace wrote.
Mr. Pfister, who is certified to operate a six-person boat, said the one of the most important parts of the boating community is knowing that if someone is in distress, it’s essential to help them out.
Seventh-grade student Mia Albanese said the course will improve dialogue between her and her father, Richard Albanese, who is the Greenport Village harbor master.
“Now I will be able to have more of a conversation with him about boats, safety and our local waters,” Mia wrote. “I will be able to help dock boats and help with maintenance down at the marina.”
Photo caption: Southold seventh-graders receive their boating certificates May 17 after completing a 10-week boating course. (Courtesy photo)