Nation/World

Idaho Hopes For Safer Boating 1997 Was One Of The Worst Years On Record For Boating Fatalities

Lakes and rivers in North Idaho still have an icy chill to them, but as the spring sunshine comes out, so do the boaters.

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s marine division is preparing its fleet and Sgt. Dan Soumas is hoping the season shapes up to be safer than last year.

Soumas worries each spring about inexperienced canoeists and other paddle boaters getting caught in the cold currents of the Spokane River.

“There’s a lot of amateur paddle boaters out there now, young kids,” he said. “They don’t recognize their limitations.”

Kootenai County had three recreational boating deaths last year - the most since 1993. Another seven people drowned in county waters in non-boating related accidents.

Across Idaho, 1997 was one of the worst years on record. Twenty people died in recreational boating accidents, which is four times the 1996 national average.

“Twenty is pretty severe for our state,” said Ann Van Buren of the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department’s boater safety program.

The three North Idaho deaths occurred in two separate accidents. In August, a Spokane Valley man was killed when his personal watercraft collided with another.

In November, two duck hunters drowned in Cave Lake when their overloaded boat became swamped. One man was able to swim to shore. None of the men were wearing life jackets.

“They had too much weight (in the boat) for what they were trying to do,” Soumas said.

The hunters’ deaths were fairly typical of Idaho boating accidents. Capsized, flooded or swamped boats are the leading cause of boater fatalities.

A 57-year-old man drowned on Killarney Lake in 1995 when the boat he was in capsized. He was not wearing a life jacket and drowned after being overcome by hypothermia in the 40-degree water.

Most who die that way are either hunters and anglers who pile too much into their boats, or thrillseekers testing their skills in swift water.

None of last year’s fatalities in Kootenai County involved alcohol, although almost half of the victims statewide had been drinking.

“We have seen a real increase in alcohol-related accidents,” Van Buren said.

In an effort to curb the trend, Idaho last year increased penalties for boating while intoxicated. Now, boaters caught drinking too much can be fined $1,000, instead of $300, and spend six months in jail instead of 30 days. Many boating deaths could be prevented simply by wearing a life jacket, Van Buren said. Of the seven fatalities statewide in 1996, only one victim was wearing a life preserver.

Most victims in 1997 also were not wearing life jackets, except for those who died in whitewater.

More unusual was the death of Joseph Harper, 41, in Beauty Bay. Personal watercraft accidents are on the rise, but deaths are rare. The last fatal accident involving a personal watercraft was in 1995 when a teenager was killed on the Lucky Peak Reservoir near Boise.

Harper died when he and a friend were boating too close together and collided. Witnesses said they weren’t boating out of control, however.

“There was supposition that the sun was a factor. We’ll never know,” Soumas said.

Nationally, the crafts are involved in 44 percent of all boating injuries. In Idaho, property damage from personal watercraft accidents has risen from $700 in 1988 to $46,580 in 1996.

Three people were injured last June when their personal watercraft was sucked under log booms on the Spokane River near U.S. Highway 95.

Boating dangers on the Spokane River increase when boaters venture too close to the Washington Water Power dam when the dam is open. Last year, Post Falls and the county passed ordinances prohibiting boats or swimmers from the Spokane River west of the Spokane Street bridge when the spill gates are open.

Because of high water last year, the dam was open until July. A swimmer who had been drinking jumped in the prohibited area in early June and nearly was swept over the dam.

Soumas and Sheriff’s deputies rescued him from the boat catch cable.

“I don’t ever want to go behind that catch wire again,” Soumas said. “At the time, I was just thinking we need to get this guy before he goes over the dam.”

This year, the spill gates are expected to be closed in early June.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Idaho’s boating fatalities and injuries

MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: BOATING CLASSES Many boating accidents can be prevented with education. County sheriff’s departments, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the state Parks and Recreation Department all offer boater education programs. The next U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary class in the area is in Sandpoint at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Federal Building. Call (208) 263-3613 for more information. Boaters can also take a home-study class offered by the state Parks and Recreation Department. Workbooks, tests and information are available at parks department offices.

Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: BOATING CLASSES Many boating accidents can be prevented with education. County sheriff’s departments, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the state Parks and Recreation Department all offer boater education programs. The next U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary class in the area is in Sandpoint at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Federal Building. Call (208) 263-3613 for more information. Boaters can also take a home-study class offered by the state Parks and Recreation Department. Workbooks, tests and information are available at parks department offices.



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