Coast Guard promotes safe boating season

Audra Gamble
Holland Sentinel

Holland — Last year, the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office recovered nine bodies from county waterways and spent 459 hours on 14 search and rescue calls. This year, law enforcement hopes to lower those statistics.

The Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Coast Guard Holland Station are busy this spring educating boaters water safety this summer.

“We’re teaching a new boater that maybe has never been on the Great Lakes before,” said Coast Guard Flotilla Cmdr. Dan Groenendyk. “It’s a different experience, so we’re here to give advice and instruction.”

In 2016, 46 people drowned in Lake Michigan, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. So far this year, 15 have drowned.

In order to prevent another peak year of drowning, the Coast Guard is offering free vessel inspections. Vessel inspections can be done any time of the year.

During the inspections, Coast Guard personnel check for adequate life jackets, flares, fire extinguishers, lights and other safety features.

“We’re here to make sure that once they get underway, they’re compliant with the law,” Groenendyk said. “The vast majority of the time, it’s more of an educational event than anything else.”

Groenendyk estimates the Holland Coast Guard station does around 400 boat inspections each year.

Typically, most boaters have the right types of mufflers and ventilation on their boats to pass inspection. But the emergency safety equipment often is lacking.

At a May 13 boat inspection at the Holland Department of Natural Resources boat launch, Coast Guard Chief Adam Smart saw a few familiar violations.

“There have been a few folks even today that don’t have flares on board, or the flares are expired,” he said. “It’s one of those pieces of gear that doesn’t stay current and that catches some people off guard.”

Despite the fact 90 percent of drowning victims were not wearing life jackets, it still is a struggle for law enforcement to get people to have enough personal flotation devices (PFDs) on board. For Smart, it’s the most typical ticket he writes during boating season.

“Unfortunately, we still come across people that don’t have enough life jackets on board,” Smart said.

The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office often loans PFDs to boaters out on the water. The department’s marine division wrote 47 tickets last year and issued 1,066 warnings.

Sgt. Dean DeVries of the marine division said his team pulled nine bodies out of the water in Ottawa County and assisted other agencies on two other rescues.

Many boaters don’t realize they need to have a Type IV PFD, also known as a throwable PFD, on board if their boat is longer than 16 feet.

“That’s one of the bigger ones that we see, and maybe not having that Type IV throwable,” Smart said.

On top of a well-equipped boat, prepared sailors are key to a safe boating season.

All boaters should submit a float plan, which includes letting people know where a boater plans to be and when they expect to return. This allows for rescuers to have a place to start looking in case the boater does not return as planned.

“Over my 20-year career, a lot of times in that first phone call they can’t tell me where the person was going or when they’d be back,” Smart said. “You know you’ll be out all night because you don’t know where you’re looking.”

A float plan can be as simple as telling a spouse or other relative where a boater intends to go, or it can be formally filed through the free Coast Guard app on a phone. Details including the departure time, return time, a working phone number and a description of the type of vessel should be on the float plan.

Boaters should also check the weather before heading out.

“We see it all season long that thunderstorms roll in and people get caught out. It’s always fun to ask them if they looked at the weather before going out on the boat that morning,” Smart said.

Boaters should keep their cell phones charged and in a plastic bag on their person. This is especially true for kayakers and other paddle-boaters without a marine radio on board.

“If you hit the red button on the app, you can see your coordinates and call 911,” Groenendyk said. “My coordinates can go right to the Coast Guard station and they know right where I’m at. That ability to immediately call the Coast Guard with your location is huge. Everything you need is on that app.”

The Coast Guard is offering free boating safety classes on June 17 and July 15 at the Kollen Park Fire Department.

The class lasts eight hours, and all participants who pass a test with a 75 percent score or better will receive their Michigan DNR boating safety certificate. Anyone born on or after July 1, 1996, must have a boating safety certificate and keep it on board.

“That’s the whole point of what we’re doing out there, making sure people are safe,” Smart said. “This is a proactive approach to it and it’s fantastic.”