IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – For the past week, Mike Vasquez has spent much of his workday patrolling the waters of the Snake River.
A marine enforcement officer with the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office, Vasquez has been searching for a young woman who reportedly fell into the river May 9 and has been missing since.
Unfortunately, this sort of macabre work has become far too common for Vasquez.
“We’ve seen our fair share,” he said.
While the missing woman fell into the river from the shore, there are many accidents Vasquez responds to that originate on the water. From drownings to accidents, excursions that are intended to be a fun day on the water sometimes will turn into a nightmare.
And as temperatures warm and more people seek respite in the region’s waterways, Vasquez wants residents to avoid becoming another statistic.
“We have rules of the road, but also rules of the water,” he said.
Learning before doing
Whether it’s fishing, rafting or taking the family on the river or lake for a nice afternoon, watersports are a seasonal mainstay in the region.
However, dangers can lurk in this recreation.
“Recreational boating fatalities are on the rise in Idaho,” said David Dahms, boating program manager for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. “We typically average nine boating fatalities a year, but last year we had 16 boating fatalities statewide. A majority of which boaters fell out of a boat and ended up drowning.”
In an effort to promote boating safety, Dahms helped develop a boater safety course that is offered in locations throughout the state. In conjunction with local law enforcement agencies, safety courses are offered through the Department of Parks and Recreation’s Boat Idaho initiative.
“These programs are free to the public,” Dahms said. “The classes are designed for any boater. Even experienced boaters have said they learned something they didn’t know that was in Idaho law.”
Through Boat Idaho’s website, residents can view boater safety courses in their area, and learn about required safety equipment for their particular vessel.
By law, there are three requirements for every boat, whether it is motorized or not: a life jacket for every occupant, a whistle or noisemaking device, and an invasive species sticker, which is required for all boats over 10 feet. Stickers cost $10 for motorized vessels registered in Idaho, which is included in annual registration renewal, $30 for out-of-state motorized vessels, and $5 for non-motorized vessels.
Idaho currently does not have a licensing system for boat operators, or a required safety course (though some counties have age requirements to drive a boat). Boats, however, must be registered, with 84,015 boats in the state in 2017.
“A lot of people don’t understand how much goes into operating a boat,” Vasquez said. “When we send our kids to six months of driver’s ed and six months of a learner’s permit, but in Idaho as long as you understand left, right, forward, and reverse you can operate a boat. There’s no requirement.”
LaMoyne Hyde, owner of Hyde’s Drift Boats, encourages customers purchasing their first boat from his store to take lessons or learn from an experienced boater before hitting the water.
“We have a `how to row’ video we’ve put together, and we suggest customers watch it two or three times before they put the boat on the water,” he said. “We also suggest they go to a lake if they’ve never rowed before and learn before heading to the river. This teaches people everything they need to know to keep under control and be safe on the river.”
And Dahms hopes an emphasis on learning will catch on throughout the state.
“We’re especially encouraging new boat owners to take these classes,” he said. “That is crucial.”
How to stay safe
Vasquez has a simple mantra when discussing boating safety.
“Life jackets. Life jackets. Life jackets.”
The veteran officer is adamant about promoting safety on the water. For the last several years, he has taught residents the basics of boating safety with a four-hour course through the Boat Idaho initiative.
“Boating safety always begins with education,” Vasquez said. “We’re just trying to help the public out.”
The sheriff’s office boasts a fleet of marine rescue equipment, including five jet boats, one pontoon prop boat, an outboard rubber raft and a rapid deployment craft for swift water and ice rescue. The office also has a dive team that assists with search and rescue.
But accidents still occur, and sometimes, even with these resources at their disposal, a rescue operation can become difficult.
“You could be Michael Phelps but it still doesn’t matter if you’re put in 50-degree water without a life jacket,” Vasquez said. “You’re going to go away.”
A major factor in many boating accidents continues to be alcohol. Vasquez estimates that 70 to 80 percent of all boating incidents the sheriff’s office responded to in 2017 involved alcohol.
Open containers are legal on boats in Idaho, but Vasquez believes the risks of drinking on the water is too high.
“Alcohol and water don’t mix,” he said. “Having like two beers on land is like having four beers on the water. The boat, the heat, the vision, and if you’re spending hours and hours out there it messes with you. Alcohol intensifies that.”
Speed also continues to be a major factor in boating accidents. Currently, there is no speed limit on many Idaho waterways (though there is a designated a 100-foot “no-wake zone” from all docks, structures and people in the water on public waters statewide) and five counties have ordinances regulating boat speed. Vasquez believes enacting a speed limit could help eliminate many accidents on the water.
“People aren’t allowing themselves proximity,” he said. “You need to make decisions and separate yourself from another boat by at least 100 feet before you make a turn or decision. A lot of boats are going way too fast to make these calls, and that’s where we’re seeing a lot of problems.”
Dahms has a simple set of common sense rules he recommends to help people enjoy a day on the water in the safest way imaginable.
“Everyone should wear a life jacket, not drink in the boats, and always be aware of navigation rules,” he said. “Always have a lookout while boating, and never go too fast for conditions.”
With a focus on safety, a day on the water can be the enjoyable experience it is meant to be.
“Please use common sense,” Vasquez said. “Our lakes are beautiful and full, and we’re encouraging people to use them. And we would love to see people out on them.”
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