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Take care, be aware: Safe Boating Boating week begins

By CJ HADDAD - | May 20, 2024

With the summer months fast approaching and a plethora of opportunities for Southwest Florida residents to hit the water, officials are reminding boaters to take precautions via an annual national campaign.

Safe Boating Campaign’s National Safe Boating Week runs from May 18 to 24, and Flotilla 96 of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary will be ever present throughout Lee and Collier Counties to create awareness of best practices.

Flotilla 96 Commander Michael DiPierro says it’s all about teaching safe boating techniques, starting with always wearing your life jacket, watching your speed on the water and being aware of your surroundings.

“You can expect to see us on the water and on land helping educate boaters practice safe boating,” DiPierro said. “You’ll see us when you’re on the water, you’ll see us when you’re shopping. We’ll be offering vessel exams, public education classes and displays.”

According to most-recent statistics, in 2022, there were 735 boating accidents in Florida. Of those reported accidents, 65 lives were lost. Falls overboard with drowning were the leading cause of death (81%).

“U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliarists will be out in the field each day of Safe Boating Week educating and informing the boating public, including safe boating classes, vessel examinations, boating patrols, air patrols, and visits to our marina partners,” stated Flotilla 96 National Safe Boating Week Chair George Lehner. “Nothing pleases us more than a well-informed and educated boating public with waterways knowledge, the necessity of a life jacket and respecting the marine environment.”

DiPierro said boating safety is of the utmost importance for Floridians, especially in Lee County, as the region boasts of one the most concentrated areas for boaters in the state.

“We have a disconcertingly high number of boating accidents,” he said. “Which results in, unfortunately, many injuries each year.”

Most recently two individuals lost their lives in a boating incident in an area of Little Hickory Bay in Bonita Springs named “Hell’s Gate.”

DiPierro said thankfully “no wake zone” signage in the area, which includes a double blind “S” curve around mangroves, that was once removed is being restored.

“That area in particular is remarkably hazardous,” DiPerro said. “And we’re delighted those signs are going back up.”

Each year the third Saturday in May starts National Safe Boating Week, the kick-off of the annual Safe Boating Campaign. It runs through the following Friday to serve as an important boating safety reminder before the Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s an opportunity for anyone associated with the boating or marine industry to highlight the needs of safe boating,” DiPierro said. “It’s to focus on the things we need to do and stay safe in the water.”

DiPierro said the No. 1 thing boaters need to do is to wear a life jacket, and one that properly fits. Boaters should also be aware of other boaters in their immediate area, as well as pending weather.

“It’s also important to tell a friend where you’re going and when you plan to return,” he said. “We call that a ‘float plan.'”

Unsurprisingly, speed plays a major role in boating incidents, whether it’s the speed of the boat at which you or another boater is operating.

“It’s always a danger factor,” DiPierro said. “Couple that with drinking, and then it’s really a serious matter.

“Now fortunately they don’t all involve personal injury, but a disconcerting number of them do. And a fair bit of those accidents, there is alcohol involved. Most of the deaths, or serious accidents, occur to people who are not wearing life jackets.”

DiPerro said the best way for boaters to stay safe, and something they preach often, is for boaters to become first and foremost, familiar with his or her boat, and to become familiar with the waters they are navigating.

“Be cognizant of what’s going on around you,” DiPierro added. “To the point where other people on your boat have some awareness and familiarity with the boat itself.”

The Coast Guard Auxiliary offers many classes throughout the year to assist boaters in best practices on the water.

“Each (auxiliary) offers a host of boating-safety-oriented classes,” DiPierro said, adding they even have a class for spouses of the primary boater on how to handle a situation where the primary boater is unable to operate the vessel.

It’s also important to be aware of and avoid marine life, especially dolphins and manatees.

“Manatees, unfortunately, are very slow-moving, and they tend to not get out of the way of boats,” DiPierro said. “They do swim relatively close to the surface unless they’re feeding on the bottom. They are subject to propeller strikes. But the corollary to that issue is very simple, they’re very easy to see, if you are paying attention.”

Another aspect of due diligence when heading out on the water is to request a vessel safety check. The Coast Guard Auxiliary offers these checks free of charge, and performs them regularly and routinely throughout the year.

“We set up stations at all of the popular launching positions, and we’ll also perform group vessel examinations at marinas throughout a full day,” DiPierro said.

The National Safe Boating Council recommends these tips for boaters:

• Take a boating safety course: Gain valuable knowledge and on-water experience in a boating safety course with many options for novice to experienced boaters.

• Check equipment: Schedule a free vessel safety check with local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadrons to make sure all essential equipment is present, working and in good condition.

• Make a float plan: Always let someone on shore know the trip itinerary, including operator and passenger information, boat type and registration, and communication equipment on board.

• Wear a life jacket: Make sure everyone wears a life jacket — every time. A stowed life jacket is no use in an emergency.

• Use an engine cut-off device — it’s the law: An engine cut-off device, or engine cut-off switch, is a proven safety device to stop the boat’s engine should the operator unexpectedly fall overboard.

• Watch the weather: Always check the forecast before departing on the water and frequently during the excursion.

• Know what’s going on around you at all times: Nearly a quarter of all reported boating accidents in 2021 were caused by operator inattention or improper lookout.

• Know where you’re going and travel at safe speeds: Be familiar with the area, local boating speed zones and always travel at a safe speed.

• Never boat under the influence: A BUI is involved in one-third of all recreational boating fatalities. Always designate a sober skipper.

• Keep in touch. Have more than one communication device that works when wet: VHF radios, emergency locator beacons, satellite phones, and cell phones can all be important devices in an emergency.

Flotilla 96 at Wiggins Pass is an all-volunteer component of the United States Coast Guard and welcomes new members that are committed to the mission of improving recreational boating safety. To learn more about the planned activities, visit www.wow.uscgaux.info/content.php?unit=070-09-06 or call 239-594 -8009.

For more information on National Safe Boating Week, visit www.safeboatingcampaign.com.