By Kevin Kelly, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
Millions of motorists soon will take to the nation’s roadways with plans of spending the extended Fourth of July holiday weekend boating on a lake or river.
But one of the busiest boating weekends of the year is not a time to throw caution to the wind.
“As a boating holiday, July 4 is on par with Memorial Day. Everyone wants to go,” said Zac Campbell, boating education coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “However, the increased volume of boat traffic and differing experience levels among boaters heightens the danger. It’s definitely not a good time to be drinking and boating. Be a responsible, safe boater.”
More than 600 people died in boating-related accidents nationwide last year, and July was the leading month for boating accidents and fatalities, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2015 Recreational Boating Statistics report.
Operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, machinery failure and excessive speed were the top five primary contributing factors in boating-related accidents reported to the Coast Guard last year. In cases where the primary cause of a fatal boating accident was known, alcohol use was the leading factor in 17 percent of deaths.
In Kentucky, state law prohibits the consumption of alcohol on waterways. It’s also against the law to operate a boat or personal watercraft while intoxicated or under the influence of any other substance that impairs a person’s driving ability.
“The dangers of operating a car while under the influence are well known, but a car has safety features that boats do not,” said Maj. Shane Carrier, boating law administrator with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “There are many different types of hazards that can be encountered on the water. Operating a vessel while under the influence puts the boat operator and others at risk.”
There were more than 172,000 motorized boats registered last year in Kentucky and 41 “reportable” boating accidents, according to the Coast Guard report. A reportable boating accident is one that involves a fatality, an injury requiring medical treatment beyond first aid, causes at least $2,000 in property damage or involves the total loss of a vessel.
In all, there were 12 fatal boating accidents and 20 boating-related deaths on Kentucky waterways in 2015. Both figures represented an increase over the previous year.
The state’s deadliest boating accident of 2015 occurred the evening of July 4 when a pontoon boat carrying nine people on the Ohio River near Louisville struck a barge and capsized. Five of the nine passengers died.
This year, one person has died in Kentucky as a result of a boating-related accident. Six other deaths on the water are being investigated by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife to determine if they will be classified as boating related under the Coast Guard’s guidelines.
Campbell advises boat operators to follow navigational rules and drive cautiously in crowded areas during the holiday weekend. Scan the surrounding water, looking for swimmers, tubers, skiers, personal watercraft operators and floating debris.
For those planning to view a fireworks display by boat, Campbell suggests taking a patient approach once the show is over and other boats start to leave.
“People tend to want to start their engines and take off as soon as the show is over,” he said. “I would wait. If you can’t wait, make sure you’re going slow and have somebody else in the boat serve as a spotter. Navigation lights are great but when you have an ocean of lights going in different directions it’s tough to see what direction boats are going in.”
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife conservation officers will be on the water during the July 4 holiday weekend to help ensure the safety of others.
“Our goal isn’t to spoil a fun weekend but to maintain a safe environment for everyone on the water,” Carrier said.
Boaters may want to consider arranging for a free vessel safety check through the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. A check by a certified vessel examiner will confirm if a boat complies with all federal and state boating laws. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife conservation officers also will perform safety checks upon request.
Boat operators can perform a quick check on their own before launching or leaving the boat dock.
Are the registration numbers and decals properly displayed? Is the registration certificate on board? If the boat is equipped with an engine, lantern, stove or other equipment fueled by a flammable liquid, is there a fire extinguisher on board and within reach? Do the red, green and 360-degree white navigation lights work? If the boat is 16 feet or longer, is there a horn or whistle on board? Are there enough personal flotation devices for everyone who will be riding on the boat?
By law, a Coast Guard approved Type I, II or III life jacket is required for each person onboard a boat. A Type IV throwable personal flotation device also is required for all boats 16 feet and over with the exception of canoes and kayaks.
Life jackets must be worn by children younger than 12 years old while in the open part of a boat that is underway and by all operators and passengers on personal watercraft.
“Everyone has to wear a life jacket at all times while operating or riding a jet ski,” Campbell said.
Another potentially life-saving safety device is a boat’s ignition kill switch. It’s the flexible red cord or lanyard that attaches to the ignition or throttle. The other end clips to the driver’s life jacket or can be worn around the wrist. If the driver is thrown overboard, the kill switch trips and stops the engine.
Children ages 12 to 17 years old must possess a Kentucky Safe Boating Certificate Card or a certificate showing successful completion of a National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) -approved boater education course in order to legally operate a boat powered by a 10 horsepower or greater motor or jet ski on waterways in Kentucky.
Boater education courses are offered in person around the state at no charge and online for a fee. All in-person courses require online pre-registration. Course schedules are posted on Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s website at fw.ky.gov.
The Fourth of July holiday weekend is one of the most anticipated of the summer. Make it a memorable one by boating safely.
Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.