With eight weekends of summer remaining and a lot of hot weather attracting people to the water, Washington State Parks’ Boating Program is making an effort to emphasize boating safety especially to enthusiasts of paddlesports, which are surging in popularity – and accidents.
According to a 2015 report from The Outdoor Foundation, paddlesports use increased 14 percent between 2010 and 2014.
The number of fatalities also has increased with the rise in popularity of canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards (SUP) and other small craft. Last year’s Recreational Boating Accident report data show 88 percent of boating fatalities happened in boats less than 18 feet long, and almost half of those were in kayaks or canoes.
“Many paddlecraft are easy to use without a lot of training,” said Wade Alonzo, Boating Program manager. “That may mislead new paddlecraft users to head out unaware of boating laws and unprepared to deal with the risks.”
Basic safety around water is pretty clear if you think about it, although the differences in boating safety regulations in cities, counties and neighboring states are much more confusing.
U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that boating accidents and fatalities could be dramatically reduced if the public obeyed the most basic laws: Reduce speeds near shore and congested areas, be visible at night, avoid drinking and driving a boat and wear life jackets while on the water.
For paddlers, it mostly boils down to avoiding water beyond your skill set and wearing proper gear for the water temperatures and always wearing a life jacket, also known as a personal flotation device (PFD).
Keeping track of boating safety laws is a boater’s responsibility, although it’s not easy if you visit various waters in various states.
Even the officers charged with enforcing the laws can be confused.
Spokane County Marine Patrol Deputy Jim Ebel didn’t know the city of Spokane had a boating ordinance regulating use of life jackets until after I quoted him in June regarding his frustration with the lack of city interest in boating safety.
City Councilman Breean Beggs dug into that possible oversight and learned that the city does in indeed have a boating safety ordinance. Contacted with that information, Ebel apologized for the confusion but said the Sheriff’s Marine Patrol had no authority to enforce it. Since then, the Sheriff’s deputies have agreed to patrol city waters, too, Beggs’ staff says.
Spokane’s city ordinance says, “Every person on a flotation device on moving water shall wear a Type I, II or III PFD.”
According to the law, “flotation device” is “any device used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on the water and shall include, but not be limited to, inflatable beach toys, rubber inner tubes, rafts and air mattresses.”
Spokane County’s ordinance says, “All persons regardless of age shall wear a personal flotation device while on moving water.”
Only the state’s law prohibiting use of cell phones while driving was more ignored last weekend on the Spokane River, Little Spokane River and in the greater Spokane area.
How many innertubers, SUPers and other vessel or flotation device operators weren’t wearing life jackets last weekend? Yes, I know it interferes with having fun, not to mention the tan lines.
By the way, four people have drown in Lake Pend Oreille or the Pend Oreille River system so far this year. Life jackets would have prevented the fatalities in at least some of those cases.
Charlie Schaefer of Newport, who’s been teaching boating safety courses since 1991, says it takes effort to know the differences in boating regulations, and some knowledge to understand why the laws were enacted.
A stand-up paddleboard is considered a “vessel” because the paddle is a manner of propulsion. Therefore, Coast Guard rules kick in requiring all SUPers to have a life jacket aboard and be equipped with a sound-producing device such as a whistle.
In Spokane County, PFDs not only must be aboard they must be worn on moving water.
Bonner County regulations for Priest Lake, Pend Oreille and other waters require persons age 14 and under on a vessel to be wearing a life jacket.
Washington state rules requires youths to be wearing a life jacket while aboard a vessel shorter than 19 feet. In Spokane County, everyone under age 12 on ANY vessel must be wearing a life jacket.
Idaho’s state law says anyone age 14 and under must wear a PFD on vessels under 19 feet.
Since 1975, Idaho has averaged nine boating fatalities a year. “Last year, Idaho had 11 boating fatalities related to human-powered vessels in which the victims were not wearing PFDs,” Schaefer said.
In 2015, Idaho recorded 37 boating accidents including 13 fatalities, nine of which were in nonmotorized vessels.
Washington recorded 169 accidents in 2016 including 29 fatalities, of which 16 were in nonmotorized vessels.
“It seems to take a tragedy to get awareness,” Schaefer said. “There’s a big push in North Idaho to enforce no-wake zones since a water skier was killed last year coming fast into shore to spray people on a dock.”
This summer, Bonner County Marine Division launched a campaign to encourage power boaters to “Ride the Core Not the Shore.” They’ve been writing more warnings and tickets for boaters violating the “no-wake zone” of 200 feet from “any shoreline, dock, bridge or other structure or person in the water.”
While Washington requires boat drivers to complete a boating safety course, Idaho does not.
“Some people tell me they’ll just boat in Idaho so they don’t have to take the safety course,” Schaefer said. “Personally, I’d rather boat in Washington where there’s a better chance the other people driving boats have taken a safety course.”
Of course, no laws can fix poor judgment.
Schaefer tells the story of getting a call after dark to rescue three SUPers way out on Lake Pend Oreille – after dark.
“They’re locals, and they called me because they knew I was there and knew the lake,” he said. “They had no lights. They were exhausted. They didn’t have life jackets. They didn’t even have a sound device to make the five blasts that indicate they’re in trouble and need help. But they did have a waterproof cell phone. That saved their butts.
“I didn’t make a big deal about it. They promised not to do it again, and I promised to keep their names secret.”
“The Coast Guard’s rule says if you come up to another boat, the larger boat has the right of way, except that human-powered boats in most cases have the right of way over power boats,” he said. “But no rule will save you if a boat can’t see you in the dark.”
“Unless there’s a fatality, you don’t hear about the many boat accidents that happen out there, and many go unreported.”
In Washington, nobody under 14 is allowed to be in the driver seat of a personal watercraft. In Idaho, there’s no minimum age set by the state. It’s up to the counties.
Kootenai and Bonner counties say you have to be at least 14 to drive personal watercraft solo. If you’re under that age, someone 18 or older must be on board with you.
Boundary County, however, has no local boating law, so it defaults to the state, which has no minimum age for driving personal watercraft.
Following the law is one thing – using common sense is another.
“We have laws because common sense isn’t a trainable trait,” Schaefer said.