Marine patrol to continue 'heightened enforcement'

Dylan Goetz • Jul 3, 2018 at 12:00 PM

The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office says it will continue heightened patrols and enforcement aimed at identifying intoxicated boating for the Fourth of July holiday, following a weekend worth of such efforts for Operation Dry Water.

The operation is a movement to remind boaters of the dangers related to alcohol consumption while boating. Although it is legal to drink while boating if you are under the legal limit, the Sheriff’s Office still urges boaters to limit their alcohol consumption.

From June 29 to July 1, the Sheriff’s Office added marine patrols in all major bodies of water in Ottawa County. During that time period, the deputies caught two boaters who were operating while intoxicated.

Marine patrol deputies interacted with 230 boaters on a total of 73 stops during the period.

Sgt. Eric Westveer of the marine unit said that finding drunk boaters is similar to finding drunk drivers — they are using careless boating practices.

“Each area is unique,” he said. “A lot of people stay inland in Spring Lake, but in Holland, more people go to the bigger waters. Big lake waters are much more dangerous.”

Westveer said it is common to receive a call about suspected drunk boaters on the water.

For the July 4 fireworks shows in Grand Haven and Holland, Westveer said the Sheriff’s Office will be setting up a safety perimeter well before dusk.

Westveer said police anticipate higher boating numbers this summer than in years past. Over the Operation Dry Water weekend, he said he saw increased boat traffic, likely due to the warm weather.

“Always limit your alcohol and remember to wear life jackets,” Westveer said, in preparation for Fourth of July and a week’s worth of boating weather. “Be conscious of the fact that there will be more boaters on the water.”

Coast Guard boating statistics

The U.S. Coast Guard released its 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics in late May, revealing that boating fatalities nationwide that year totaled 658, a 6.1 percent decrease from 2016.

Among the findings: Alcohol continues to be the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.

From 2016 to 2017, recreational boating injuries also decreased 9.4 percent, from 2,903 to 2,629, and the total number of accidents decreased 3.9 percent, from 4,463 to 4,291. However, the report also shows it was the second highest number of fatalities on record in the last five years.

“Although these lower numbers are encouraging, I ask those who boat to continue to do so responsibly, especially by donning a life jacket,” said Capt. Scott Johnson, chief of the Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety at Coast Guard Headquarters. “Wearing a life jacket is the single-most important thing you can do to save your life or the life of someone you care about.”

Johnson cites a heart-wrenching case in which an 18-year-old who had been preparing to wakeboard unexpectedly fell overboard with a life jacket in his hand. He never resurfaced.

“When you need a life jacket, you need it on — not in your hand or stowed away out of reach on your boat,” Johnson said. “This tragedy was entirely preventable.”

The report also shows that in 2017:

— The fatality rate was 5.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. This rate represents a 6.8 percent decrease from last year’s fatality rate of 5.9 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels.

— Property damage totaled approximately $46 million.

— Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, machinery failure and alcohol use rank as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.

Johnson warns boaters of the impacts of alcohol use, noting a case in Connecticut where two inebriated people on a 32-foot boat were killed when it crashed into a breakwater.

“Alcohol was the leading factor in 19 percent of deaths,” Johnson said. “It is also a completely preventable factor. Never boat under the influence.”

Where the cause of death was known, 76 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 84.5 percent were not wearing one.

“As a career Coast Guardsman, where it is my mission to prevent accidents and save lives on the water, it is extremely frustrating to see cases where something as simple as wearing a life jacket would have made the difference for life over death for 84.5 percent of the drowning cases,” Johnson said.

Where boating instruction was known, 81 percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had not received boating safety instruction. The vessel types with the highest number of fatalities were on open motorboats, kayaks and personal watercraft.

You can view the 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics at uscgboating.org/statistics/accident_statistics.php.

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