Sheriffs remind boaters to practice safety while on the water

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott, Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published July 22, 2015

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METRO DETROIT — Summer is officially in full swing, and local boaters from around southeast Michigan are hitting the “busiest freshwater lake in the world” and its myriad connecting rivers, canals and streams for some outdoor water fun.

But remember to stay safe and follow the rules — and laws — of the water.

Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said his Marine Division conducts state-approved boater safety courses several months before the start of Michigan’s boating season in April.

He said there is a lot more involved in getting ready to head out on the water than just being savvy to the rules.

“Making sure your boat is in good working condition is always important,” Wickersham said. “And make sure you have a personal flotation device on the vessel.”

The Macomb County Sheriff’s Marine Division patrols 89 square miles of Lake St. Clair, 30.5 miles of shoreline and 57 miles of connecting rivers, canals and streams.

“If you’re going out, have a plan and let a person on shore know when you are leaving, where you are going, and when you plan on getting home,” Wickersham said.

And remember the new rules about drinking.

In December, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation reducing the allowable blood alcohol content percentage from 0.10 to 0.08 for drivers operating watercraft, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles. If authorities stop someone for erratic driving and suspect that alcohol is involved, officers will administer a field sobriety test. In Oakland County, if someone fails three or four field sobriety tests, they will be turned over to a member of the Alcohol Enforcement Team or a local police department for a Breathalyzer test.

According to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol and Water Rescue Unit, over 80 percent of all water-related accidents and deaths are the result of reckless operation, alcohol and/or not wearing a life jacket.

Wickersham said that so far this season, his Marine Division deputies have issued 66 citations and 31 warnings to boaters not obeying the law.

A majority of those citations were no-wake violations (there were nine issued in May, 15 issued in June and 20 issued in July, as of press time). Other violations included expired motor carrier licenses, careless operation, and violations involving a personal flotation device, either because of none on board or a child not wearing one.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said in a press release that those behind the wheel of a boat must have a basic understanding of the mechanical system and how to operate the vessel. Just because a person can drive a car doesn’t mean he or she can operate a boat or personal watercraft.

“These vessels will travel up to 70 mph and require a certain level of skill and training to safely operate them,” Bouchard said. “Unlike a car, they do not have brakes, safety belts or airbags.”

Before venturing out onto the water, the sheriff’s Marine Patrol and Water Rescue Unit suggests running through a pre-launch safety checklist:

• Carry a personal flotation device for everyone on board and a throwable flotation device. Children ages 6 and younger must wear a Type I or Type II flotation device.

• Carry a sound-producing device — such as a horn, a bell or a whistle — a fire extinguisher and a certificate of registration.

• Check the capacity plate and the navigation and running lights.

• Check the engine compartment for fuel, oil or water leaks.

• Check the bilge pump, the steering system and the blower motor/ventilation.

• Review the float plan and have emergency equipment on hand.

“Regardless of what type of vessel you are preparing to launch, your summer startup preparations will play a large part in how safe and enjoyable your boating season will be,” Bouchard said in the release.

There have been no major boating collisions or fatalities reported so far this season. However, a 54-year-old homeless man was recovered from the Clinton River spillway on July 5. The man’s cause of death is still unknown, though it appears to be an accidental drowning.

In 2014, the Macomb County Sheriff’s Marine Division performed 18 search and rescues, three search and recoveries, and responded to 21 boat accidents. Wickersham said there are 11 patrol/rescue boats in the Marine Division fleet, including personal watercraft.

The division also provided more than 11,800 hours of volunteer service and taught boating safety classes to more than 6,000 students.

A boater safety certificate is required when operating a vessel on the water.

The biggest issue that watercraft drivers face is the lack of a boater safety certificate. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website has a list of options for obtaining a boater safety certificate, and people can even complete the course online and print out their certificate.

According to the state DNR, children younger than 12 years of age may operate a boat without restrictions if the boat has a less than 6-horsepower motor. Children younger than 12 may also operate a boat with a less than 35-horsepower motor if they have been issued and are carrying a boating safety certificate, and if someone at least 16 years old is on board supervising.

Children younger than 14 are not permitted to legally operate a personal watercraft. Kids ages 14-15 may operate a personal watercraft if they have a boating certificate and are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, or a person who is at least 21 years of age. In addition, they must drive not more than 100 feet from the adult. Teens at least 16 years old may operate a personal watercraft only if they have received a boating safety certificate.

People born on or before Dec. 31, 1978, may drive a personal watercraft without restrictions.

To find a boating safety class, visit www.dnr.state.mi.us.

For more information about the Macomb County Marine Division, visit www.macombsheriff.com.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Marine Unit provides boating classes throughout the county, as well. To sign up for a free boating class, visit www.oaklandsheriff.com and search for “safety classes.”

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