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Coast Guard, sheriff push life jacket use

Cora Hall • May 25, 2019 at 10:30 AM

Although boating accidents are rare on local waters, emergency and law enforcement officials continue to stress the fact that life jackets save lives.  

According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics, 76 percent of boating deaths that year were due to drowning, and 84 percent of the drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.

“Collectively, we’ve had a lot of injuries over the years — I’m talking Coast Guard wide — that have related to life jackets not being worn,” said Master Chief Kirk McKay of Coast Guard Station Grand Haven. “So, I think, even when it comes to alcohol usage or just sporting fun, any of those accidents, it always comes down to the majority of deaths come because life jackets aren’t worn.”

There are many reasons people don’t wear lifejackets, ranging from being uncomfortable to interfering with their tan. McKay noted that under Michigan law, children younger than 6 have to wear life jackets while aboard a vessel. Being comfortable in the water isn’t an excuse not to wear a life jacket — two-thirds of drowning victims are “good swimmers,” according to the 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics.

“You may be a strong swimmer, but even strong swimmers drown,” said Sgt. Eric Westveer of the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office. “If the water is cold, you lose muscle control. If you get knocked out or suffer a medical issue, you also lose all control. It doesn’t matter how strong of a swimmer you are, you will experience fatigue and, if you are in rough waters, you will not win.”

The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office responded to 11 boating accidents last year, two of which involved injuries.

With National Safe Boating Week wrapping up this weekend, McKay said the main message is to have a good time on the water — but to do it safely.

“We want people to be able to go out and enjoy themselves — and to do that, you want to do it safely,” he explained. “I would say that we also want to make sure, if people are going to be drinking, they have (a sober) operator. We try to discourage boating and drinking because we don’t think it mixes, but we also know that it does happen. So, if it’s going to happen, make sure that, just like a vehicle, you have someone who’s the operator, that knows how to operate the vessel, and knows how to navigate the vessel, and can do it safely.”

Westveer has had personal experience with boating accidents associated with alcohol, and is adamant that boating and drinking do not mix. Two of the recent serious accidents occurred at the Port Sheldon pier head.

“The first was three years ago,” he said. “A powerboat was on Lake Michigan running on plane at full speed and struck the north pier head. One passenger was killed while the driver and other passengers sustained serious injuries. This crash also involved alcohol.

“The second was last fall,” he continued. “A personal watercraft carrying two subjects struck the north pier head. Both sustained injuries. One was airlifted to the hospital. Both (incidents) show the importance of safe boating by serving as a reminder that boating and alcohol do not mix, as well as knowing your waterways and how to properly handle your vessel.”

The law regarding drinking and boating is similar to drinking and driving, with a legal blood alcohol limit of 0.08.

Last summer, the Coast Guard conducted more than 800 search-and-rescue cases on Lake Michigan. There were 67 deaths on Lake Michigan related to people not wearing life jackets and 38 instances of boating under the influence, according to McKay.

“As an operator, technically you can drink out on the boat, but as the operator you really shouldn’t be drinking,” McKay said. “Then, of course, if there is any alcohol, they’ll be stopped and checked.”

Among various contributing factors to boating accidents, such as under preparation and misunderstanding of waterways, human error is the most significant factor, according to McKay. In 2017, 81 percent of cases that involved deaths, the boat operator had no boating safety instruction.

A recommended precaution for every boating trip is making a float plan, which includes letting a friend or family member in the area know where you’ll be boating and what time you expect to be back.

To ensure boats meet safety requirements, McKay said the main things the Coast Guard looks for are life jackets, fire extinguishers, boat registration and flares. He said they have found that as they make more contact or board more vessels for safety checks, they see a decline in accidents and the need for a search and rescue.

“We have a lot of boaters out here, and it’s a really small percentage of the problems compared to how many boaters are out there,” McKay said.

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