It’s the season to stress swimming, boating safety

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

On the dock of the Detroit Yacht Club marina on Belle Isle, Tim Coltman steps back to admire his Sea Ray Sedan Bridge as he gets the yacht ready for the start of boating season.

Thomas Danforth, 4, takes a swim class with instructor Moriah Potter at the Goldfish Swim School in Birmingham.

Coltman has sailed all five Great Lakes, and is in the water for most of the summer, but plans to leave his boat docked for the next week to make sure it’s properly inspected.

“My wife and I spend two weekends out of the month traveling, so we make sure to take all the proper precautions by having our boat inspected and having two of everything,” said Coltman, who has been a member of the yacht club for 12 years. “When you travel like us, safety is always a main priority.”

As Metro Detroiters head for pools, beaches and marinas, health and law enforcement officials are working together to prevent water-related deaths through a variety of initiatives.

In Oakland County, one such partnership aims to prevent drownings among infants, toddlers and preteens.

The new campaign includes the Goldfish Swim School, Sheriff’s Office, Health Division and the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project chapter of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.

In the past five years, 22 people accidentally drowned in Oakland County, according to sheriff’s records.

Sgt. Brent Jex, commander of the Sheriff’s Office marine unit, said most people won’t realize someone is drowning until it’s too late.

“It’s not like Hollywood where the person is flopping around and screaming when they drown. Most of the time, people go under silently,” Jex said. “If parents are watching kids, they need to put the phones away and pay attention. Leaving for a minute can cost a life.”

Anthony Bowden of the harbor staff washes a Sea Ray Sedan Bridge boat at the Detroit Yacht Club as boaters get ready for the season.

Danger of drowning

Drowning is the second-leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4, behind only birth defects, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. When children 1 to 4 participate in formal swimming lessons, the risk of drowning is reduced 88 percent, but many children never receive formal water safety training, according to the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.

Rhonda Danforth of Detroit enrolled her 4-year-old son, Thomas, in swimming lessons last year.

“We own a boat, so I was very concerned about my son having water safety as early as possible. His dad doesn’t know how to swim and was apprehensive about putting him in the water at such an early age, but he eventually agreed,” Danforth said. “Thomas was scared of putting his face in the water, but now he is totally comfortable and making great progress.”

Goldfish Swim School begins swim lessons for children as young as 4 months old, with classes once a week in a heated, 4-foot deep swimming pool in Birmingham. The school has several other locations in Metro Detroit.

“When children are taught how to swim at an early age, they are less prone to develop a fear of water,” said Chris McCuiston, the school’s co-owner.

“Safety is our first priority. With everything, it starts with baby steps and then you keep building on your skills and becoming more comfortable and confident in the water.”

Deaths in pools

The CDC reports that from 1999 to 2010, nearly 14,000 Americans 19 and younger drowned; 40 percent of those cases were among children 1 to 4, and at least half of those deaths occurred in swimming pools.

Lt. Jeff Brossard of Macomb County’s marine division said before going out this summer, everyone should take a boating class with the division, Department of Natural Resources or the Coast Guard.

To operate a boat legally in Michigan, anyone born after June 30, 1996, must obtain a boater education card by taking a state-approved watercraft safety class. For personal watercraft, the same requirement applies to anyone born after Dec. 31, 1978.

Additional restrictions apply to youths. Details are available at

“Boat owners need to know the rules. There are no streetlights or lanes,” Brossard said. “Have a float plan. Tell someone what area you are going to be in and what time you will make it back.

“We want everyone safe on Lake St. Clair and to come back how they left.”

In the past four years, 68 people have drowned in Macomb County.

Ray Batt, commodore at the Detroit Yacht Club, said members are encouraged to have their boat inspected by the Detroit power squadron, a boating education organization.

A team of 18 volunteers comes out to inspect each boat with a vessel safety checklist. The exam lasts 15 to 30 minutes and if all requirements are met, a sticker on the outside of the boat lets the Coast Guard know all safety inspections have been passed.

“We want our members to be able to enjoy themselves this summer,” Batt said. “But safety is first here before anything.”

As more people venture out into the water as the weather warms, Jex hopes safe practices are not forgotten.

Kathy Rodgers of Chesterfield Township and Chili think safety at the yacht club. May is National Water Safety Month.

‘Be hyper-vigilant’

“Gas prices are decreasing this year and I think there will be more activity on the lake,” he said. “As a unit, we will have to be more diligent to keep people safe and to stress the importance of wearing a life jacket. We will be out patrolling, but people need to be hyper-vigilant. We went two years without any deaths on the lake and we are trying to get back to that.”

John Leo of Grosse Pointe is content to keep his boat docked at the Detroit Yacht Club marina for most of the summer.

“Owning a boat is like my cottage,” Leo said. “We might go on a few weekend trips, but all the fun happens here. We can still enjoy without driving up I-75 and getting stuck in traffic. It’s paradise in the water.”

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