Observation of precautions proves boaters' best life-preservers


June 01, 1994|By PETER BAKER

May is the month when most people get their boats up and going in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Powerboats, sailboats, canoes, cruisers, jon boats, jet skis, whatever.

May also is the month when recreational boaters begin to die on those same waters.

This month has been no exception.

In the past couple of weeks, four deaths have been recorded -- three fishermen and a sailor who had grounded his boat and gone over the side to clean its bottom.

In each of the three incidents, it would seem that the deaths might have been avoided.

The first death involved two friends fishing off Bloody Point in 4-foot seas. At the end of the day, the two friends were bringing in their lures when a wave came over the transom of their outboard-powered 18-footer.

One man swam for more than an hour to reach safety on Kent Point. The other, his life jacket on but not properly fastened, drowned. Had the life jacket been fastened properly, Natural Resources Police said, he probably would be alive today.

The sailor who had grounded his boat at the mouth of Back Creek in Annapolis was a sailing instructor, and according to reports, had many years of experience with boats and boating.

Yet he went over the side to clean his boat wearing a pair of sweat pants and no life jacket. He apparently started the cleaning job in about 4 feet of water, but then continued cleaning after the boat slid into deeper water.

Did the sweat pants weigh him down? Did the boat rise up on the wake of a passing boat and come down on him? One supposes an autopsy will determine what went wrong.

This past Sunday, four members of a family from Arnold put out from Sandy Point State Park in a 15-foot boat. NRP determined that the four of them weighed more than 740 pounds, a lot of weight to put aboard a 15-footer.

Near the mouth of the channel leading into the bay proper from Sandy Point, the boat sank and two of the four drowned. Apparently none aboard was wearing a life jacket.

In each case, there appears to have been one or more mistakes in judgment.

* In the Bloody Point incident, there are two things to keep in mind -- 4-foot seas in the Chesapeake are somewhat unusual, and when they occur, it is advisable for people not to go out in small boats, and an unsecured life jacket cannot keep one's head above water.

* In the Back Creek incident, the experienced sailor apparently made two bad decisions -- wearing sweat pants, which become extremely heavy when wet, and deciding not to wear a life jacket, which at the least probably would have brought him back to the surface and turned him face up.

* In the Sandy Point incident, the boat apparently was overloaded in an area notorious for high speed boat traffic, strong current and erratic wave action. And none aboard was wearing a life jacket.

This is the start of the peak season for boating in Maryland waters, and following a few simple rules will make your boating safer and therefore more pleasurable.

* First, be certain your boat is capable of handling the number of people aboard in the sea conditions you will encounter. A boat loaded to its limits is dangerous in a calm sea and potentially deadly in all other conditions.

* Make sure there are properly sized life jackets aboard and use them.

* Be certain that all required safety gear is aboard and in good working order and know how and when to use it.

* Reduce speed in relation to the sea conditions and the boat traffic in the area.

* Keep a lookout for other boats, noting their course in relation to your own and be aware of the potential danger created by powerboat wakes and the blind spots that can be created by the sails on sailboats. Be vigilant.

* Be courteous and sensible. Learn the rules of the road and know how to use them to the best advantage of all involved parties.

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