Safe Boating Week: A Cautionary Tale

Karen Schaefer- It's an annual ritual for many people who live near Lake Erie or any other navigable body of water in Northeast Ohio. Get out the boat, scrape a few zebra mussels off the hull, and head out for a glorious summer afternoon on the water. Ohio has more than 400,000 registered recreational water craft, from canoes and kayaks to sailing vessels and cabin cruisers. These boaters pour nearly $1.5 billion into the state economy each year.

But it's not all surf, sand and sunblock. Each year there are some eight thousand boating accidents nationally, about 10% of which are fatal. That's why U.S. and Canadian officials are trying to educate people about boating safety. Joan Mabee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Watercraft says boaters in both countries are now being required to certify their boating skills.

Joan Mabee- The law this year did change, to say that anyone born on or after January 1, 1982, has to complete a safety course in order to operate a power boat which is greater than 10 horsepower.

KS- The Canadians have passed a similar law that will phase in new boat operator licenses over the next ten years. The sharp rise in the number of recreational boats has led to U.S. efforts to target boating safety. But on the Great Lakes, boating has always been a risky business. Georgeanne Waechter and her husband Michael are professional divers from Avon Lake and the authors of two books on Lake Erie shipwrecks. She relates the disaster that overcame the cruise ship Griffith as it attempted to make port in Cleveland in the summer of 1850.

Georgeanne Waechter- Half a mile toward what is now Willowick, Ohio, she grounded and that is the third worst disaster in terms of loss of life on the Great Lakes. (The Griffith) carried a huge number of immigrants - a lot of them carried gold in their clothing and when they jumped into the water, they drowned in droves. Whole families drowned together - it's thought that over 250 people died that day.

KS- The Waechters and other seasoned boaters say the same factors that have sunk an estimated 2,000 - 3,000 commercial vessels in Lake Erie still plague today's recreational boaters. Prime among them are abuse of alcohol, poor vessel maintenance, and inexperience in reading weather on the lake.

GW- This lake can be very nasty. You need to respect it - and that's part of the problem with a lot of casual boaters. They don't realize how this lake can kick up.

KS- Ohio's boating accident statistics bear that out. Today most boating fatalities occur among sport fishermen and other casual boaters. And officials say that in 95% of all fatal accidents, boaters weren't wearing life jackets. ODNR's Joan Mabee says alcohol is a leading cause of boating disasters.

JM- Folks enjoy themselves in the Flats with dinner and libations and then head out into the lake as it gets later in the night - after midnight hours - to swim. The danger in that is if there's any wind at all, when you leave your boat, the boat's going to drift a lot faster than you will just swimming at the surface. In one summer, we experienced three or four of these, where folks left the boat to swim, swam, enjoyed themselves, and then started looking around and the boat was gone.

KS- In the Great Lakes region, the U.S Coast Guard responds to about 7,000 boating incidents a year. More than three-quarters of them involve alcohol. But while it's legal to drink and drive on the water in Ohio, in Canada it's not and this year for the first time, both countries are combining their campaigns to educate boaters. Lawrence Swift is communications officer for the Canadian Coast Guard base in Sarnia, Ontario. He says while Canada doesn't have as many recreational boaters as the U.S., Canadian officials are just as likely as Americans to answer a call for help.

Lawrence Swift- We treat the Great Lakes as one body of water. The border really doesn't exist when it comes to saving lives. For example, if you were on the Canadian side of the border and found yourself in distress, if there was a U.S. resource closer and better able to respond, you would probably wind up being saved by the U.S. Coast Guard or another U.S. agency.

KS- On May 26, the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Gryphon will arrive in Cleveland for tours at the Port Authority on the E. 9th Street Pier. U.S. officials will sponsor a weekend Boating Safety Fair with free boat inspections and demonstrations of lifesaving equipment. On May 28, officials from both sides of the border will oversee the blessing of the fleet as another year of recreational boating gets underway. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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