Enjoy the Water: Learning Safe Boating

The Memorial Day week-end is the traditional start of the boating season. Agencies that patrol Texas waterways want boaters to know that all too often a day on the water ends badly because basic seamanship, safety and laws were not followed. Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports.

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City, county, state and federal authorities patrol area waterways and the one piece of safety advice they all emphasis is too few boaters wear life jackets when they're on the water. Texas Parks and Wildlife's Lt. William Skeen says since 2003 there have been 32 boating fatalities here in southeast Texas.

"Of those 32 fatalities 25 of the people actually drowned. We feel if those people had been wearing a life jacket they would have survived the accident."

State law requires that anyone under 13 must wear a life jacket while a boat is underway, but it is advisable for everyone to wear them. Lt Skeen says that life jackets are now available that are not bulky and that are much more comfortable than traditional life jackets.

"The inflatable life jackets have come so far now that they look like a fanny pack or a set of suspenders. They work automatically, if you're knocked into the water, lose your balance or something like that they automatically inflate with a CO2 cartridge, and they will right you and save you."

Galveston County Sheriff's Lt. Chuck Walsh sums up the seamanship problem by say 'what you don't know, you don't know'. Anyone can buy a boat, launch it and take off and yet the things you don't know can lead to tragedy. He says he'd been boating for years when he was required to take a boating course. He though he knew all about boating. During the course he was taught you should never anchor a boat from the stern.

"And I remember thinking to myself at that time, that seems kind of ridicules. A couple years later I actually worked quite a few fatality accidents because people anchored their boats from the stern. The tide and wind changed direction, the boat was strained against the anchor, it caused the stern of the boat to get pushed underwater, the boat flooded from the seawater, the people on board were not wearing life jackets and subsequently drowned."

Lt. Walsh also says he used to like to ride the bow of the boat with his feet dangling over the side. That is illegal on Texas waters because people, often children, have be tossed off the boat, run over and killed.

There are safety laws that must be followed or boaters can be fined, authorities often pull boats over to make they are carrying all the required safety gear. HPD Sgt. Tolan Harding patrols Lake Houston and says some violations are common.

"Typically it's not enough life jackets for the number of people they have in the boat. Or if they do have enough life jackets they are not properly fitted for the person that's intended to be wearing it."

He says putting an adult life jacket on a child will most likely not protect the child that ends up in the water.

"Some of the other common violations we see are not having other required safety equipment such as a fire extinguisher, or the fire extinguisher has lost its charge, not having a horn or a whistle, and not having a type-4 throwable devise which is a ring buoy or a square seat cushion."

Sgt. Harding says boaters can be warned or they can be fined for not having the proper gear or for violating boating laws.

The way to find out what the law requires and learn safe boating and basic seamanship is to take a course. There are a number of organizations, like the U.S. Power Squadron, the Coast Guard Auxiliary and Texas Parks and Wildlife who offer courses that will make boating safer and get everyone back home after a day on the water. You'll find some links at kuhf.org.

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