Sunday, June 05, 2005

As boaters head to the water, a quick refresher course can save a life...

Published June 5, 2005 (Rod Sanford/Lansing State Journal) Cruising along: Michigan ranked No. 1 in the nation last year with 944,800 registered boats - about one boat per 10 people. Lake Lansing (above) is a popular spot for local boaters. PLAY IT SAFE When it comes to boating safety, there are both laws and common-sense suggestions. Here are key state requirements, plus officials' advice: Life preservers • The law: There must be a personal flotation device (PFD) in the boat for each person; it must be Coast Guard-approved in Type I, II or III (all vests) or Type IV (ring or cushion). Kids 5 and younger must wear a vest (Type I or II); others can have a PFD nearby. Also, any boat 16 feet or longer needs an extra, throwable ring or cushion. • Suggestion: Have everyone strap on a vest, not just the kids. "In dive teams, there's a saying that we've never recovered a body wearing a life preserver," said Sgt. Vernon Elliott, an Ingham County sheriff's deputy. Operator's age • The law: Kids of any age can operate a boat with a putt-putt motor of 6 horsepower or less; they can operate a boat with 7-35 hp, if someone 16 or older is supervising. Kids between 12-15 can operate a boat of any power, if there's someone 16 or older onboard - or if they've passed the Department of Natural Resources boating course. Ages 16 and up can operate legally. • Suggestion: Take a course, whether required or not. Capacity • The law: Each boat has a passenger limit. "They've got a capacity plate," said Sgt. William Johnson, a Barry County sheriff's deputy. "The old ones were hard to read, but not the new ones." • Suggestion: Avoid overloading in general. Alcohol • The law: It's the same as for a car: Driving is illegal with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.10 percent or higher. • The suggestion: Soda pop is nice. The DNR suggests: "Don't drink and boat." Other laws • For a personal watercraft (a Jet-Ski, for instance), everyone must wear a life vest. It must be Type I or II for kids younger than 12, Type I or II or III for others. A child younger than 7 can ride on or behind one only if a parent, guardian or designee of the parent or guardian is there. • Water-skiing or towing requires an observer other than the driver. Also, the skier must wear a life vest - Type I or II for younger than 12, Type I or II or III for others. Sources: Interviews; "The Handbook of Michigan Boating Laws and Responsibilities," from DNR. As boaters head to the water, a quick refresher course can save a life By Mike Hughes Lansing State Journal When warm weather finally arrives, Michigan life can seem serene and seductive. People bring out their boats, almost a million of them. They find water pleasures - and, sometimes, dangers. Pat Sharpnack, of Delta Township, saw an example of that last month. Visiting a friend in Lake Jordan, 30 miles west of Lansing, she witnessed a tragedy. A canoe had overturned; three adults and a 2-year-old were in danger. "Nobody knew how to swim," Sharpnack said. "There wasn't a life jacket. Even the baby had no flotation device." A neighbor zoomed to the rescue on a Jet Ski-type personal watercraft. "She's a hero," said Sgt. William Johnson, a Barry County sheriff's deputy who responded to the call. Three of the people were rescued. However, the child's teen-aged father drowned. Unfortunately, that happens in a state filled with water. There were 170 boating accidents last year, government figures show, including 26 fatalities. The numbers have dropped as the state tightened its laws. There were 88 fatalities in 1967, the Michigan Boating Industries Association says. Since then, the number of boats has almost tripled but the number of fatalities has fallen by 70 percent. Still, many rules are unknown or unheeded. That includes: • Life jackets. Only eight of the 26 people killed in boating accidents last year were wearing one, Gary Mitchell of the Michigan Association of Insurance Agents told the Associated Press. • Buoys. "There are a lot of first-time boat owners out there, and they don't seem to know what the buoys are for," said Pat Witte, manager of the Lake Lansing parks in Haslett. They get too close to the swimming and pedal-boat areas. • Alcohol. That was a factor in about half the fatalities, state figures indicated. "You get out on the water, in the warmth, with the waves, and people's reactions are already slow," said Vernon Elliott, who is both a boater and an Ingham County sheriff's deputy. "Now if you add alcohol, the effect is stronger." That gets more complicated on a crowded day. Lake Lansing has sailboats and Jet Skis sharing space; Lake Jordan, alongside the city of Lake Odessa, is also popular. "It can get busy," Johnson said. "You get out on the water; you're having fun. You're distracted." Still, the worst accidents sometimes happened during uncomplicated times. The most recent Ingham boating fatality came in the late 1990s, Elliott said. One man was relaxing in a small boat. "He didn't have the required lighting. Another boater ran right into him." The Jordan Lake fatality also came during an uncrowded time. That was shortly after 1 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10. "It was one of those beautiful, sunshiney days we didn't have many of in May," Sharpnack said. Locally, the temperature reached 80. Sharpnack was visiting a Lake Jordan friend. "We heard some yelling, but we didn't know what it was," she said. "Then we heard it again." They ran to the shore and saw the scene: Jeri Hendershot, 22, was sitting on an overturned canoe with her daughter Alexia, 2. Robert Kelley, 30, was holding onto the canoe. Farther away was Alexia's father, Thomas Herblet, 19. "He couldn't have been more than 20 feet from them," Sharpnack said. "He kept bobbing in the water." Sharpnack and her friend didn't have a boat that could reach them in time. "I really thought there was no way we were going to save them," she said. That's when a neighbor, Debra Smith, raced to the rescue on her personal watercraft. Smith, a prison guard, focused first on the 2-year-old. That's when Herblet went down for the final time. Soon, two units - one from a State Police post, another from Barry County - arrived. They didn't find Herblet in time. The accident left people perplexed. "They were only about 100 yards from shore," Johnson said. One theory is that Herblet panicked in the icy water, when he was trying to pull the others to shore. Lake Jordan was choppy that day, Johnson said. "It was not a good day to be in an overloaded canoe, without life jackets." Those factors are covered by state laws. There must be one life preserver for each person; young kids (under age 6), water skiers and Jet-skiers must be wearing them. And boats list a capacity in people and in pounds. There are many such rules. Drunken boating, Elliott said, faces the same restrictions as drunken driving. "I wish people would just leave the alcohol until they get back on shore. Or, at least, have a designated boater." Not all the rules are easy to find. (People can check or get a DNR booklet.) State budget cuts have taken away money for classes, Elliott said. The only ones in Ingham County schools this year were in Holt, which paid for them separately. Meanwhile, the water, like everything else, gets more complicated. That includes the rise of the personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis. They bring a long set of extra requirements, including classes and certificates. They're safe, Elliott said, once people allow for quirks. "The problem is that they are so quick and can turn so sharp," he said. "They're smaller than boats and sometimes harder to see." A personal watercraft might sometimes be considered an annoyance. On one tragic day on Jordan Lake, it was considered heroic. WATERWORLD Boating dominates Michigan. The Michigan Boating Industries Association gathered examples, using numbers from the state Department of Natural Resources, Michigan State University and others. The state has: • 11,037 inland lakes. Also, 36,350 miles of rivers and streams. • Quick access to four of the five Great Lakes. No point in the state is more than 85 miles from one. • 944,800 registered boats in 2004, No. 1 in the nation; that's about one boat per 10 people. • 40 boat manufacturers, 460 dealers and 758 marinas that can handle 10 or more boats. In all, there are 64,368 wet slips for boats; there are also 1,406 sites with public access to water. • A side note: Just over half the boats are less than 16 feet long. The typical boat (according to 1998 statistics) is used 29 days a year. More boaters, fewer deaths There are more boaters and fewer boating deaths these days, the boating industry says. The Michigan Boating Industries Association makes this comparison, using Department of Natural Resources figures: • 1967: 88 boating deaths; 385,124 boats registered in the state. That's one death per 4,376 boats. • 2003: 29 deaths; 957,454 boats. That's one per 33,129 boats. In other words, fatalities were almost eight times more likely in 1967. • The Eaton County Sheriff's Department offers free boating safety classes, 6-8:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 1025 Independence Blvd., Charlotte; call to register. Info: 543-3512, ext. 390, or 372-8217, ext. 90. Accident figures drop In recent years, the number of Michigan boats and boating fatalities has been relatively stagnant. However, the overall number of accidents has been trimmed to one-third its old level. Here's a comparison, using figures the Associated Press gathered from the state Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Association of Insurance Agents: • Boats registered: 980,341 in 1998; 944,800 in 2004. • Accidents: 514 in 1998, 170 in 2004. • Fatalities: 25 in 1998, 26 in 2004. Contact Mike Hughes at 377-1156 or

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