JUNEAU -- Rep. Bill Hudson woke up Wednesday nervous about his boating safety bill coming up for a vote Wednesday, but then remembered why he was pushing it so hard: two beautiful, blond girls about 6 years old.
As a young coxswain on a two-man Coast Guard skiff on the Columbia River in the early 1950s, Hudson rushed to the assistance of a girl in the water. She had been riding in a boat driven by her father that hit a floating tree. She was not wearing a lifejacket.
Hudson's boat pulled along the side and he reached for her.
''I couldn't get my arms on any of her clothing, so finally I grabbed her by the hair,'' Hudson told fellow representatives.
He held on for two or three minutes, until another tree came down the fast-moving river.
''A tree came down, and pushed that little girl right out of my hands,'' Hudson said. ''We never saw her again, and she died.''
Hudson is hoping House Bill 108, approved 34-5 by the House on Wednesday, will cut down on marine tragedies in Alaska, which occur at 10 times the national rate.
The bill transfers boat safety regulatory authority from the Coast Guard to the state and makes Alaska eligible for a portion of $500,000 in federal marine fuel taxes that can be used for boating safety education.
Alaska is the only state without its own boating safety program.
The bill would require varying safety equipment depending on the size of the boat. Boats could be required to carry fire extinguishers, backfire flame protectors, visual distress signals or sound-making devices.
The bill requires registration of all boats with mechanical propulsion. Hudson said registration is critical when rescuers come upon an unmanned boat. If the craft is identified, rescuers can quickly find out the number of people who were in it, the equipment they carried and even if they could swim.
''If you can identify those boats, you may be able to save lives,'' Hudson said.
The Department of Motor Vehicles would handle registration. Hudson said the cost to boat owners would be $24 for three years.
Registration is projected to bring in $600,000 annually. Hudson said registration receipts and the federal money would allow the state to make a major effort in boat safety education.
The House on Monday adopted an amendment offered by Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, that exempts boats not equipped with mechanical propulsion from registration requirements.
''Will registering a canoe or paddle boat make it any safer?'' Mulder asked. He said the public would find the boat safety program and registrations far more acceptable if they were not mandatory for canoes, kayaks and other human-powered craft.
That prompted Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, to ask whether owners of the paddle boats could opt out of search and rescue operations too. Hudson and Bunde were joined by Reps. Joe Green, R-Anchorage, Bill Williams, R-Saxman, and Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage, in opposing the amendment, which was approved 31-5.
Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said the bill will add to the state's bureaucracy and voted against the bill.
''I haven't been satisfied that we will do it as well as the Coast Guard,'' he said.
Hudson said 38 Alaskans died in boating accidents in 1998 and 29 died last year.
A year after losing his grasp on the doomed girl on the Columbia River, Hudson said, he responded in the same boat with the same crew to another blond girl overboard. The child was wearing a lifejacket and this time Hudson was able to get into the water and push her into the boat.
''She's probably a 50-year-old or 60-year-old grandmother today,'' Hudson said.
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