The U.S. Coast Guard, along with other Law Enforcement Marine Units, will be patrolling the waterways of the Treasure Coast conducting safety inspections for boaters throughout the holiday weekend to promote safety on the water. ERIC HASERT/TCPALM
As boaters head out for Labor Day getaways, law enforcement agencies hope they pay attention to their surroundings and keep safety in mind.
Marine officers said inexperience and inattention can land people in dangerous situations.
Of the 714 documented boating accidents in Florida during 2016, there were 204 attributed to inattention. Inexperienced operators were to blame for 109 additional incidents, according to state records.
Earlier this week a couple waved down a Coast Guard patrol because their boat floated away from them after they got out to cast a net on a sandbar at the Fort Pierce Inlet. Officers brought the boat back to them.
That same day, the same Coast Guard patrol found four people in a boat in the Fort Pierce Inlet with three life preservers.
The patrol accompanied them to shore and made sure they purchased a fourth life jacket. Boaters are required to have Coast Guard-approved preservers and those should be sized for the people in the boat.
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“An adult-sized PDF (preserver) will slide off a child,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Kevin Watkins said.
Just having PDFs may not be enough. The survivor of a boat that overturned off Hobe Sound last year said his companions were going to get their PDFs when the boat overturned.
Before that, they frantically were trying to bail water that started flooding the stern, according to a state report about the incident.
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Seventy-five percent of the people involved in boating accidents weren’t wearing PDFs at the time, according to a state boating mishap report for 2016.
During the Labor Day weekend, hundreds of boats alone often congregate at gathering places inside the Fort Pierce, Sebastian and Jupiter inlets. It is one of the biggest boating holidays next to July 4, according to law enforcement agencies.
This weekend, nothing unusual is expected with the weather, according to National Weather Service meteorologists. Offshore waves should be 4 feet or less and there could be some typical afternoon summer rain coming off the ocean.
But weather can change quickly, Watkins and others cautioned. Anyone venturing out in a boat should get updated forecasts and remain aware of what is going on around them.
Watkins referenced a sudden, offshore storm two years ago that swept in after Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, both 14, went out the Jupiter Inlet. They were never seen again. Watkins said that incident has many people being more safety-conscious along the Treasure Coast.
Watkins and his crews will be watching the waterways, he said, as well as local law enforcement marine patrols and officers of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
They’ll be stopping some boats and asking for boat operator identification; checking if the driver is intoxicated; and checking that there’s life jackets and other safety equipment on board.
“We can stop any boat,” Watkins said, quoting federal law. ”We don’t need a reason.”
Boating safety checklist
- Before leaving, tell someone on shore where the boat will be going and when it will be back. Stick to your plan. Leave behind the size and type of boat and the registration numbers. Phone in if there are changes.
- Review safety equipment. In addition to approved life jackets, boats 16 feet and longer should have a float on a rope for throwing to someone who falls overboard. Have an air horn or whistle to signal. A flare should be on boats going out in the ocean.
- Boat operators should have identification.
- Check to make sure the boat is ready to go. Ensure that drain plugs are in and there is adequate fuel.
- Carry along drinking water and any medications people need.
- Before any outing, check the weather forecast. Be cautious about going out when winds are higher than 15 mph.
- Know that boaters can encounter hazardous conditions if they attempt going out inlets during an on-going tide when winds are blowing toward land. That combination can create large dangerous waves. Even on calm days, water depth changes and there are currents.
2016 boating statistics
Boats Accidents Deaths Accident ranking*
Indian River County 10,800 9 2 23
St. Lucie County 12,950 12 1 19
Martin County 17,548 17 4 12
Brevard County 33,999 27 0 8
*Out of 67 counties
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission