CLEVELAND — The week of May 18 to 24 is National Safe Boating Week, and with Memorial Day weekend coming up many boaters in northeast Ohio are preparing for the unofficial start of recreational boating season and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is urging boaters to be safe out on the water.
Between 2015 and 2018, according to ODNR, the department investigated 63 fatalities on the water, 18 of them in 2018. In 2018, drowning was the cause of death in half of all fatalities, and 75% of victims were reported not to be wearing life jackets. ODNR also said that in 2018, it investigated 148 boating incidents that resulted in 59 injuries.
“We find a lot of times that a lot of our boating fatalities, unfortunately, could have been solved by simply wearing a life jacket,” said Lieutenant Chuck Stiver, who works for ODNR's Division of Parks and Watercraft.
Dave Matty and his first mate, Rich Tayek, went out fishing Wednesday for the first time this spring. Matty said they’ve been boating on Lake Erie for 10 years.
“We took our first fishing trip and caught a Ohio perch and a nice walleye, which we’ll have for dinner tonight,” Matty said.
The men headed back to the East 55th Street Marina in Cleveland early in the afternoon, ahead of possible bad weather. They said they always take steps to stay safe while boating.
“When we’re on the water, as you can see, we always wear our life jackets,” Matty said. “We always make sure that there is no alcohol on the boat, and there’s no fooling around on this boat. This is just a fishing boat.”
Tayek has learned to run the boat in case something happens to Matty, and if something happens to Tayek, “we have the life rings that we throw. We have flares. We have horns. We have everything that we’re supposed to have on the boat,” Matty said.
Matty said they often see boaters who are speeding out on the water or who navigate their boats too close while the men are fishing. They also see people who have alcohol on their boats.
“We see it often in the marinas, and it’s no different than a car,” Matty said.
If Lt. Stiver could spend just a few minutes with boaters, he said he’d emphasize a few key points, including the importance of life jackets.
“Life jacket’s just like your seatbelt,” Stiver said. “If you don’t buckle it, it won’t work. So everybody on the boat, we would prefer [they] wear a life jacket at all times.”
Stiver said people should check the label on the life jacket to ensure it’s approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and that it is the right size.
“Many times when we need it, it’s too late to think about putting it on. The bad thing’s already happened,” Stiver said. “So I’d encourage folks just to spend a lot of time, do the research and then find one that they’ll put on that’s as natural as putting your seatbelt on when you get in the car.”
Communication is also key for people heading out on boats.
“Let somebody know where you’re going,” Stiver said. “File a float plan. Tell them where you’re going to go, when you expect to be back, and if you don’t come back, who to call.”
ODNR also asks that people designate a sober skipper, since operating a boat under the influence is illegal.
“We would also prefer that the passengers not be under the influence,” Stiver said. “If they can leave the alcohol on shore, that’s preferable, cause sometimes, it’s the actions of even the passengers that create a problem. They become unsteady on their feet and simply fall overboard. Falls overboard and capsizing are actually the leading cause of boating fatalities throughout the U.S.”
With lake levels higher than usual, Stiver urged boaters to use navigational charts and systems to make sure they don’t run into obstacles or hazards while out on the water. He also noted that Lake Erie’s water is currently about 50 degrees and that boaters should dress warmly, as though they might be submerged in the water.
ODNR said it will be out in full force for the holiday weekend, patrolling along with the Coast Guard, making sure boaters are operating safely and efficiently.
In addition to looking for violations such as alcohol consumption or impaired operators, Stiver said patrols would also be checking safety equipment on board, such as life jackets.
“Most importantly, we want them to know we’re out there to help them, so if they need their boat inspected, they can stop one of our patrol boats and just ask for assistance, ask us to look through that necessary safety equipment,” Stiver said.
That safety equipment should also include some form of communication, according to Stiver. While cell phones work well in most circumstances, they don’t work as well when a boat is too far from shore or if the phone gets wet. Stiver said handheld, submersible marine band radios are a “vital link” to the U.S. Coast Guard for communications or assistance.