Boating season, safety warming up

By: Susan Belknap, The Press-Tribune
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With the days getting longer and summer fast approaching, Folsom Lake will soon become filled with boaters, water-skiers and wake boarders. With those additional crowds comes a need to be extra careful while out on the water, according to the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Ed Sweeney, deputy chief of public affairs for the guard, said one problem that occurs in all waterways, especially during the summer months, is when boaters mix alcohol and boating. Sweeney said boaters should be aware that after being out all day in the wind and sun and with a lot of noise, motion and vibration from the boat, the effects of alcohol can magnify, which can result in boat operator impairment. "There are about 700 deaths each year due to boating fatalities nationwide," he said. "Fifty percent are alcohol related." There are no laws regarding open alcohol containers on boats or boat operators consuming alcohol. But, if apprehended, a boat operator with a blood alcohol level above 0.08 percent can face the same penalties that apply to drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, Sweeney said "We recommend waiting until you are on shore to drink," he said. "And you should have a designated driver as well." Tony Corado, the fire chief for the South Placer Fire District, said his staff responds to several severe boating accidents each year at Folsom Lake. Corado said many of the accidents occur as a result of collisions between boats and jet skis or wave runners. "The personal watercrafts are sometimes just more difficult to see out there," Corado said. "Some people just aren't being responsible. They need to be aware of their surroundings." According to the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety, alcohol involvement in reported boating accidents in 2003 accounted for 44.6 percent of all boating fatalities in California (compared to 34 percent nationwide). Sweeney feels California's numbers are higher because of eroding state park budgets and the lack of enforcement. "There are some states that have Boating under the Influence (BUI) checkpoints throughout various lakes, but in California, we don't have the staff or the money," he said. The Coast Guard Auxiliary is comprised of approximately 35,000 civilian volunteers across the country with about 200 in the Sacramento area. The organization was established in 1939 by Congress to assist the Coast Guard in promoting boating safety. Auxiliary members are involved with non-law enforcement programs such as public education, vessel safety checks, safety patrols, search and rescue, maritime security and environmental protection. "Our role is to educate and make people compliant with the laws," Sweeney said. One of the biggest problems Sweeney sees on Folsom Lake, in addition to alcohol incidents, is a lack of education on boat operation. He said only 2 percent of boat operators have taken a boating safety course and only about 30 percent of boats have the required safety equipment, such as life jackets, fire extinguishers and some sort of sound system such as a horn or whistle. "Many people just don't realize the boat doesn't have brakes. There are always collisions at the dock," he said. Even though there are no lines down the middle of the lake like on a highway, boaters should stay to the right side of the channel, make some sort of sound signal to pass other boats and observe all buoys and signs that mark obstruction or no-wake zones. "People forget the three Cs - courtesy, common sense and caution," Sweeney said. Corado said boaters who lack the necessary number of life jackets are invited to stop by any fire department where a variety of child-sized jackets are available on a checkout system. Boaters who are interested in a vessel safety check can make an appointment, free of charge, with the auxiliary. Appointments can be made online at Life jackets will also be handed out at Folsom Lake on Saturday during the California Highway Patrol's and SAFE Care Coalition's Follow the Leader Safety Starts With You campaign. Representatives will be on hand from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Granite Bay boat ramp entrance off Douglas Boulevard. For more information on this campaign, call CHP Officer Kelly Baraga at 663-3344. Susan Belknap can be reached at