STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - You need a license to drive a car or fly a plane, but in Sweden just about anyone can take the helm of a 200 horsepower speedboat that zips along at speeds up to 70 km (44 miles) an hour.
That could change if a plan to make boaters apply for licenses becomes law. The result, sailors say, could be a more bureaucratic, rule-bound sea around Sweden’s rugged coasts — but also a safer one.
Boasting 3,218 km (2,000 miles) of coastline, an affluent population and a history rich with sailing tradition, it is easy to see why Sweden is so crazy about seacraft.
According to industry figures, Swedes own some 750,000 boats, or one for every 12 of the country’s nine million people.
“Something like around 35-40 people get killed in pleasure boat accidents or disappear every year,” said Lars Hogdahl of Sweden’s Ministry of Enterprise. “Some just never get found.”
He is the man behind a proposal on licenses that could be in place by next summer. The idea has been mooted for more than a decade, but always met opposition among Swedes who think of boats as a ‘last freedom’.
Now, even though many boaters resent restrictions, support for his plan is building in a community fed up with fellow sailors who are ignorant, reckless or drunk.
“It’s a very good idea,” said Oscar Lagerberg, 26, a sailing enthusiast from Sweden’s west coast. “Just today we had to give way and even honk at a person who didn’t keep to starboard in the fairway.”
Some 20,000 boats worth about 4 billion crowns ($596 million) were sold last year alone, lobby group SweBoat says. About 15 billion crowns more is spent on boating every year.
But to Swedes, boating goes beyond money.
“Sailing gives a feeling of freedom when you can get away from everything and find your own little island,” said Lagerberg, who has crossed the Atlantic in a private yacht.
Sweden also has a national love affair with outdoor sports and a growing legion of well-to-do young people thanks to a fast-growing economy.
But as more boats clog Sweden’s archipelagos, mishaps have soared. “The police, they say that the accidents on the sea are more and more like accidents with cars,” said Hogdahl.
While boats have become more powerful, many of their pilots have become less careful, the ministry official said.
They venture out to islands where restaurants are springing up and cruise back after a few drinks. They use sophisticated equipment that gives them a false sense of security and often don’t know how to avert hazards or handle a crisis.
Hogdahl’s campaign is fuelled by what he has witnessed — a young boy driving at 40 knots (46 miles per hour), and his three visits to wreckages this summer after pleasure boats had plowed into sailing boats, killing people on board.
The proposal, which will apply to boats of seven meters or more or those that can exceed 10 knots, will be circulated in October to maritime groups and the coast guard.
Goran Andersson, chairman of the Swedish Boating Union, said his 160,000-strong club backs the plan. “We have something we call the Boat Parliament, where we decided to fight for this.”
Mindful of a possible backlash from seasoned sea-hands, the ministry is ready to exempt those who can document a large amount of experience on the sea.
Hogdahl himself will probably not be taking the exam.
“I have owned a boat since I was a little boy,” he said. “I know what I’m talking about.”