CLEVELAND — The upcoming Memorial Day weekend will be sending people out in droves to Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, highlighting yet again how important the area is as an economic engine. However, public safety officials want to ensure that history doesn't repeat itself as 2020 brought significant increases in boating accidents and deaths.
The unofficial start to summer this weekend will be one unlike any other in recent memory as some semblance of normal life has returned. Crowds and full patios at bars and restaurants in the Flats are expected and so too is a jam-packed Cuyahoga River. With the holiday weekend top of mind, officials representing Cleveland's public safety forces, maritime safety and industry advocates, along with tourism and recreation agencies, converged at Collision Bend Brewing Company in the Flats to affirm that the city's waterfront is open for business. The event was organized by the advocacy organization, Share the River.
"Cleveland is an economic engine for our community. It's the key to Northeast Ohio in its global competitiveness. It's an important part in building Cuyahoga County's future," said Jared Magyar, the director of facilities and operations for the Port of Cleveland. "We're reaffirming our commitment to maintaining and enhancing the safety and sustainability of the Cuyahoga River."
The maritime industry in Northeast Ohio is a behemoth, employing more than 20,000 people and generating more than $3 billion in economic activity on an annual basis. Recreation and tourism have also grown substantially over the years, culminating in a record-high number of visitors at Cleveland Metroparks in 2020. These two critical industries and assets both share the city's waterways and can safely and harmoniously co-exist, officials said.
"Be attentive to the navigational channel and learn the maritime rules of the road. Small vessels, especially paddlecraft, should stay clear of large vessels by moving to the side of the waterway," said Lt. Commander Jeremy Maginot of the United States Coast Guard's Marine Safety Unit. "In 2020, because of the COVID pandemic, boating activity increased dramatically. As a result, the Coast Guard saw an increase in the number of accidents, injuries and deaths on the waterways."
According to the USCG, there was a 24% increase in boating deaths in 2020. The number of deaths in the months of June, July and August 2020 were the highest in more than two decades. Accidents and injuries also increased.
Capt. Drew Ferguson, the president and CEO of PHASTAR, a non-profit marine safety and advocacy organization that works with CMSD students at Davis A&M High School, said 2020 brought increases to the number of emergency requests and requests for assistance. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in the summer, PHASTAR operates a safety vessel along the Cuyahoga River.
Last year, PHASTAR assisted more than 180 commercial vessels and responded to more than 50 emergency requests.
"We pulled 40 people out of the water in 2020 which was up from eight the previous year. This year we have already pulled three people from the water," Ferguson said. "It's really just getting the message out and making this a welcome environment and making folks want to be down here and want to communicate and learn."
Ferguson and Commander Maginot said it is vital that all recreational boaters, kayakers and those using paddlecraft be aware of their surroundings. Given its topography and how frequently it is used by large commercial vessels, the Cuyahoga River can present unique challenges for first-time users. Wearing a lifejacket is also a no-brainer, Commander Maginot said.
"Put those protections in place to protect yourself and your family, like a lifejacket. Don't drink and boat. There are a lot of opportunities and mechanisms, tools, that we take for granted in marine safety that save lives," Commander Maginot said. "If you have spent time investigating tragedies on the water like many of us have, some basic safety tools like a lifejacket could have made a very unfortunate scenario a completely different situation."
From a recreational standpoint, Cleveland's waterfront is only going to get better in the coming years with the addition of Irishtown Bend as a park and greenspace, ultimately connecting Cuyahoga Valley National Park to Lake Erie. This year, the Cleveland Metroparks already opened the Red Line Greenway and expects to add a Lake Erie water trail, according to Rachel Nagle, the outdoor recreation manager for Cleveland Metroparks.
"As part of that, it stretches 20-plus [miles] from Huntington Beach to the west and Sims Park to the east," Nagle said.
Those amenities emphatically proved their importance last year and will continue to do so for years to come, said Michael Deemer, the interim president of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance.
"Those amenities have always been valuable. They were especially valuable over the course of the last year. Clevelanders across the city and across the region discovered and re-discovered the river and the trailways," Deemer said. "People are coming back downtown more and more every day, re-discovering their downtown, falling back in love with Downtown Cleveland over and over again. We know next week that is going to accelerate even more."