Boating safety touted

June 06, 1993|By Audrey Haar | Audrey Haar,Staff Writer

Take a confined area like Assawoman Bay, mix in weekend water warriors on motorboats, jet skies and pontoon boats, and what do you get?

Chaos, according to Sgt. Bernard E. Clipper of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. "If you want to relax on a boat, you don't bring it to Ocean City," he says.

"During the weekends in Ocean City, there is a tremendous amount of boating traffic," agrees Chief Robert Bennington, officer-in-charge of the Ocean City Coast Guard Station. "There are boats cruising, people are fishing and jet skis are zipping all around."

In an effort to make the area waters safer, the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Reserve, Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Ocean City Power Squadron are joining forces to alert the community to safe boating practices during national Safe Boating Week, which starts today and continues through Saturday.

"It bothers me when I see people headed for a sandbar," says Robert B. Davis, educational officer of the Ocean City Power Squadron. "You can't do anything. If [boaters] could read the chart, stay in the channel and knew the danger signals, you wouldn't have any trouble. These are the things we teach."

Locally, the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers a boating safety course that condenses the basics into three evening classes, and the Ocean City Power Squadron teaches a six-week boating course. Both courses teach basic boat operation techniques, using nautical equipment and chart reading.

(Maryland law requires those born after July 1, 1972, to obtain a certificate from a boating safety course to operate a boat.)

The safe boating campaign seems to be paying off.

According to the National Safe Boating Council, the fatality rate for boating accidents nationally was 18.3 per 100,000 boats in 1973. By 1991, that figure plummeted to 4.6, and last year it dropped to 4.0.

And that was while the number of boats in the United States increased.

In Maryland, there are 189,247 vessels registered and documented, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, compared with 71,714 vessels in 1970.

But with an increase in the number of boats on the water comes a rise in the number of accidents, even though the fatality rate has declined.

Larry Innis, national chair of Safe Boating Week for the National Safe Boating Council, attributes the lower fatality rate to better-educated boaters and the durability of the newer fiberglass boats. Also, more boats have VHS radios enabling them to call for help, and an increasing number of smaller boats have electronic navigational systems.

Surprisingly, rough seas and inclement weather are not the major causes of accidents.

"Most boating accidents [happen in] late afternoon on sunny VTC weekend days. [They occur] because [boaters] are tired; the glare of the sun; and if they have been drinking a couple of beers, they are impaired," says Ed Shaner, public education officer of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

"Fifty percent of the fatalities have alcohol as a contributinfactor," says Mr. Innis of the National Safe Boating Council. "The fatigue of being outside all day impacts judgment."

In addition, many boaters don't wear life jackets. Eighty-six percent of victims in boating fatalities were not wearing life preservers, Mr. Innis says.

The ocean and the bay are also unpredictable. Even people who have experience boating on relatively calm waters such as a lake may find themselves unprepared to take on the choppy waters around Ocean City.

Boaters in the bay may find themselves navigating large waves during an outgoing tide, warns Chief Bennington.

He also cautions against taking pontoon boats on the ocean. The flat-surfaced vessels may be fine for outings on the bay, but they aren't designed for the sea. "Every year someone wants to brave the ocean with one of those things, and we bring in the pieces," says Chief Bennington.

It is a constant battle to convince casual weekend skippers that boating is serious business, says Mr. Innis.

L "People look at boating as an extension of their back yard."

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