Water warnings: Sheriffs float tips on boater safety

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published June 4, 2014

 A performer entertains the audience with daring tricks during the 2012 River Days celebration in Detroit.

A performer entertains the audience with daring tricks during the 2012 River Days celebration in Detroit.

File photo by Robert Guttersohn

METRO DETROIT — If the past few weeks of summer-like weather have you longing for the lakes, you’re not alone. Michigan’s boating season is in full swing, and local law enforcement agencies are making sure residents mind their P’s and Q’s out on the water — for safety’s sake.

Keeping an eye on boaters is an annual task for Lt. John Michalke, of the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office. With a good portion of Lake St. Clair, the Clinton River and Black Creek in his jurisdiction, Michalke has to make sure his marine division is ready for the influx of water revelry that comes this time of year with the department’s nine boats, two jetskis and full-time marine patrol staff.

“We also, during the busy part of the year, have a 95-person reserve force to augment (those resources). We bring in extra help and put all the boats in water. We have to. I’m told we’re one of the busiest freshwater lakes in the country,” said Michalke.

The goal, he said, is to ensure everyone enjoys the summer weather with an uneventful ride on the lake. When boaters get too rambunctious, or maybe even intoxicated, plans for a good time can sink rather quickly.

“Currently, the legal blood alcohol level allowed for water vehicle operators is 1.0, which is what it was for motor vehicle drivers before it was lowered to 0.08,” said Michalke. “I understand there is legislation moving through the Capitol right now to lower it.”

Most law enforcement officials would tend to agree, according to Michalke, that sober boaters tend to make smarter and safer decisions at the helm.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard would certainly stand behind that observation. He said he, too, will instruct his officers — on 26 boats, several jetskis and even a hovercraft — to be vigilant on spotting users that have had one too many alcoholic drinks.

“Consuming alcohol is certainly a huge contributor, statistically, not only to watercraft accidents but to drownings,” said Bouchard.

He added that improper use of equipment is another factor in many dangerous accidents out on the lakes.

“Some people may not know how to pilot a vessel. For instance, a jetski has a very unique operating system. An inexperienced person might be on a jetski and see something coming up and their instinct is to let up off the throttle, and they essentially become a projectile. A more experienced person would know you have to give it gas to turn,” said Bouchard.

Knowing how your equipment works and staying away from the booze are just two of the main concerns the Oakland County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol and Water Rescue Division wants to make sure residents know about before they hit the water this summer. That’s why the division has committed to hosting several boater safety classes this summer, free of charge, so residents know how to stay safe on Oakland County’s 450 lakes. The next classes will be June 7 and 21. The Macomb County Sheriff’s Department offers similar classes, which can be found by calling the department.

During that course, participants will learn basic statistics that illustrate how important it is to take safety precautions on the water, including the fact that 70 percent of people who fall overboard or whose boats have capsized drown, and 85 percent of those people had personal floatation devices (PFD) on the boats but were not wearing them at the time of the accident.

Children 6 and younger must wear a PFD while on a water vessel, but adults have a choice. Bouchard said, however, that no one plans to be pitched into the water — it happens unexpectedly. So boaters should prepare for unthinkable circumstances.

“There are a lot of comfortable auto-inflate PFDs,” he said. “It could save someone’s life. Most of these incidents are very easily prevented. Follow boating laws and take a few extra steps to use the proper equipment — most tragedies would never occur.”

To that list of safety tips, Michalke would add that those heading out on the water should be sure to tell friends or family back on land where they’ll be going, when they’ll return, and from what location they’ll be departing and arriving.

“We emphasize to people that they should check the weather report and have a radio or cellphone with a good charge with them. It’s just a good, common-sense thing to do,” said Michalke.

To learn more about boater safety tips or to find out where you can take a boater safety certification course near you, contact the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office at www.oakgov.com or call (248) 858-7831, or contact the Macomb County Sheriff’s Department at www.macomb-sherrif.com or call (586) 496-5151.