A lifejacket for everyone in the boat is the most important safety practice recommended by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The first day of summer, June 21, is still weeks away. But, for many, the Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial beginning of the season.
One of the preferred holiday activities around Pinellas is boating. Local waterways likely will be crowded, as people take advantage of three days off and what looks like good weather ahead.
National Safe Boating Week is May 18-25, and the Florida Wildlife Commission and U.S. Coast Guard are out on area waterways making sure everyone remembers safety rules.
“Florida is a great place to enjoy boating year-round,” said Col. Calvin Adams, director of the FWC’s Division of Law Enforcement. “And even more people will be out on the water for the holiday weekend. Both the holiday and National Safe Boating Week (May 18-24) present an opportunity to emphasize the importance of remaining safe while boating.”
Sixty-seven people lost their lives in Florida last year in boating accidents, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s 2011 Boating Accident Statistical Report.
Pinellas County ranked No. 6 among the top 10 counties reporting accidents in 2011. Pinellas ranked No. 4 in 2010. In 2011, three fatality accidents were reported, 13 accidents with injury and 20 without injury.
The primary cause was carelessness and inattention, followed by operator inattention and machinery failure. The most frequently reported type was a collision with another vehicle, then flooding or swamping, and collision with a fixed object.
Statewide, inattentiveness of the operator is too often the contributing factor in boating accidents, FWC reports.
“Boating smart and safely could result in fewer injuries and deaths each year,” Adams said.
The FWC advises boaters to remain alert while operating a boat, to wear a life jacket and use an engine shut-off switch. Another safety tip is to designate a sober boat operator.
More than 67 percent of the 55 boating-related deaths confirmed in 2012 were due to drowning, which might have been prevented if life jackets had been in use, according to FWC officials. Almost 85 percent of those who drowned were not wearing a life jacket.
“In an emergency, there might not be enough time to put one on, so wearing on at all times may save your life,” Coast Guard officials said.
The Coast Guard is promoting National Boating Safety Week’s 2013 campaign slogan – Wear It! The promotion focuses on the availability of comfortable and lightweight life jackets, as well as the safety aspects of wearing a life jacket at all times.
Safety first with passengers is the responsibility of every boat captain. The Coast Guard frowns on bow riding, which officials describe as an “unsafe practice of remaining on the bow of a vessel while it is underway.”
Boat inspections are on the official safety list, especially for the beginning of the season, to avoid breakdowns on the water. Local Coast Guard Auxiliaries offer free, no-fault vessel safety checks. Volunteers will verify the presence and condition of safety equipment required by state and federal regulations. For more information, visit cgaux.org/vsc.
FWC strongly advocates the use of an engine shut-off switch. The safety lanyard attaches from the boat operator to the ignition. If the switch is disconnected, the engine will shut down, which could prevent the boat from running anyone who has fallen overboard and avoid injuries from the propeller of a runaway boat.
Another important safety tip is to file a float plan that details where you are going and how many people are aboard your vessel. The float plan should include a vessel description, your destination and a timetable of where you expect to be at a certain time. If you must change your float plan, make sure you tell someone who will let others know of your change in plans. In case of an emergency, a good float plan can help the Coast Guard narrow down a search to find you.
Check the weather before taking off. The forecast for the coming Memorial Day weekend is for temperatures near 90 degrees with a slight chance of thunderstorms each day. The Coast Guard reminds residents of how quickly weather can change, “so mariners planning of making way should keep a watchful eye on the forecast conditions.”
Working communication equipment is a must-have. The Coast Guard recommends a VHF-FM radio as the best method of communication while on the water. Cell phones can provide a backup, but should not be your only means of communication due to gaps in coverage area and the potential of a dead battery. Don’t forget the nautical charts and global positioning device.
The FWC, Coast Guard and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s marine unit will out in force Memorial Day Weekend. While much of their mission will be promoting boating safety, they’ll also be keeping a close eye out for intoxicated boaters. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.
“Boating under the influence or boating while intoxicated is just as deadly as drinking and driving,” Coast Guard officials said. “It is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs in every state. Penalties for violating BUI and BWI laws can include large fines, suspension or revocation of boat operator privileges and jail terms.”