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Boating safety spotlighted with approach of nationally-recognized week
May 16, 2018

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As National Safe Boating Week marks its 60th anniversary, and leads into the Memorial Day weekend, island authorities highlighted the importance of safety on the water and offered up some basic tips.

Running from May 19-25, the nationally-recognized week promotes water safety awareness.

"The goal behind the week is to promote safety on the water and try to prevent accidents and drownings," Fire Chief Jeff Pawul, with the Captiva Island Fire Control District, said.

Capt. Tim Barrett, the Sanibel Fire and Rescue District's training officer, agreed.

"The main goal of boater safety week is, as the name implies, to make everybody sit back and think about boater safety," he said. "So when people go out on the water, they're prepared."

According to the U.S. Coast Guard's 2016 Recreational Boating Statistics, the most recent figures available, there were 4,463 reported accidents that year. They involved 701 deaths and 2,903 injuries, plus approximately $49 million of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents.

In 2016, Florida was the top-ranking state with 70 fatalities and 684 accidents.

"Florida has been and always is - as of late - the number one state for boating accidents and drownings in relation to boating accidents," Pawul said.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 80 percent of boating deaths nationwide were due to drowning in 2016 and 83 percent were not wearing a life jacket. Two-thirds were described as good swimmers.

One in three boating injuries occurred in boat operators over the age of 35.

In addition, 77 percent of the deaths occurred on boats where the operator had no boating safety instruction, and in 15 percent of the deaths the primary cause and leading factor was alcohol.

The top-ranking factors among boating accidents, injuries and deaths during 2016 were operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed and alcohol use.

"Florida has the greatest number of boats and boat owners and - not surprisingly - the greatest number of boating accidents," Pat Schmidt, commander of America's Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva, said. "In the vast majority of these accidents, the boat's captain has had no boating education."

"For our organization, that's worrisome," she added.

Fire district officials offered the boating community some tips on how to stay safe.

"The best thing is to take a boating safety class," Barrett said.

Pawul agreed, noting that there are even online courses available to take.

"It's almost like a driver's ed course for the water," he said.

America's Boating Club has an array of classes.

"We pride ourself on offering the finest boating education in Southwest Florida," Schmidt said. "Our program offers courses for everyone, from beginning boaters to highly experienced boaters."

Barrett and Pawul pointed out that most calls come from boats running aground.

"There's really shallow water around here," Barrett said.

He recommended that boaters study the charts before heading out.

"To get from A to B, you may have to go through C and D to get there," Barrett said. "If you're not local, get a good chart before you hop on a boat and go."

Pawul echoed that.

"Boating wise, we have the same issues to deal with as Sanibel does with people running aground because they are inexperienced with a boat or inexperienced with our area," he said.

Pawul explained that local boating is not like boating in a lake up north.

"You see water and you think you can go there, and quickly go from 4 (feet) to 10 feet of water to a foot or less," he said, adding that several factors play into how big of a problem it is at that point.

"Depending on your speed and the type of vessel you're in, it can be a small incident," Pawul said. "You get in a bigger boat with higher speeds and that's when people can really get injured."

Barrett also suggested that more than one person be able to handle the boat.

"Make sure at least one other person knows how to operate the boat," he said. "Everyone should have a good basic knowledge, or if something happens they're kind of stuck with no way of operating it."

Pawul recommended knowing how to use GPS in case of an emergency.

"Educate yourself on your boat and your surroundings. If you get in trouble, know how to convey your location to rescuers," he said, referring to using landmarks or reading latitude and longitude. "We notice that a lot - people can't convey where they are at."

Filing a float plan or mini itinerary with family or friends before leaving is also key.

"Make sure somebody knows where you're supposed to be at, so we know where to start looking for you," Pawul said.

There is a minimum equipment list of what every vessel should have, which includes a cell phone or way of communication and life jackets. State law requires one life jacket for each person on board.

Schmidt explained that there is a Life Jacket Loaner Program in place with the Sanibel fire district. Residents and visitors can borrow the jackets from Station 171, at 2351 Palm Ridge Road, on a daily or weekly basis. Supplied with a Sea Tow Foundation grant, the sizes range from infant to extra large.

"People can come get a life jacket and use it for the extra people they don't normally have (on board)," Barrett said.

Boaters are also encouraged to bring extra food and water, as well as sunscreen, hats and such.

"One of the last important things is don't drink and drive out there," Pawul said.

He explained that boat operators are responsible for themselves and the passengers on their vessel, along with any other boaters out on the water.

"If you're driving and operating a boat, you're putting everybody's life in jeopardy," Pawul said.

While National Safe Boating Week is only one week, a recently launched national campaign aims to empower recreational boating advocates to create a safe boating culture 365 days per year. Called Boat Live 365, it features a range of resources, from accident reporting and cold water, to propeller strikes.

"While National Safe Boating Week is important, it's purpose is to underscore the importance of safe boating 365 days," Schmidt of the campaign.

For more information, visit the campaign website at boatlive365.org.

Additional safety information can be found at www.safeboatingcampaign.com.

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