Drinking while boating remains a major issue, according to officials from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, even as an increasing number of people are aware of the dangers of doing so.
With the start of the National Safe Boating week on Saturday, those officials say they hope area boaters use available education opportunities to improve safety on the water.
“It’s like our kick off to summer this week,” said First Sgt. Nathan Hutson, with DNR. “A lot of folks like to get on a boat and enjoy the waterways on the Intracoastal and Waccamaw. We want everyone to be safe.” DNR offers free safety courses and the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers the classes for $30, or $40 per couple.
Neither Hutson nor Bill Unger, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla staff officer for public affairs in Georgetown, had records of boating accidents in the area, but said the causes of incidents are frequently the same, involving impaired drivers or inexperienced boat operators.
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“We’ve seen more education of folks knowing they need to have a sober driver,” Hutson said. “But drinking is still one of our major issues. It’s one of those things, drinking and boating. Folks seem to think that they go together.”
Hutson said it is the same as driving a car when it comes to alcohol use – there should always be a designated driver.
But, that’s where the comparison to driving a boat and driving a car ends, and where the second major issue for boating accidents arises.
“The only part that’s the same is that you insert a key and you turn it and you have a steering wheel,” Unger said. “And you are required to take classes on how to drive a car and learn the rules of the road.”
Unger said there is no requirement for adults to take classes to operate a boat.
As a result, he said, “People often don’t know the rules of the water and how to boat safely.”
Hutson said DNR officials ask how much experience the driver has at each incident, and that the answer is frequently not much.
“Experience is the most important aspect of driving a boat,” he said. “Being experienced and knowing what’s expected of you.”
That’s why Hutson and Unger encourage anyone wanting to operate a boat to take classes.
Hutson said boating with someone who has experience is helpful.
“I learned from my father and my grandfather how to drive a boat,” he said. “Some folks dont have that leisure, but maybe they have someone that has boated before that they can get the right pointers from.”
Hutson said as many as 80 percent of people who die in boating accidents were not wearing life jackets, which by law are required to be on the boat. The law only requires children under age 12 to wear the safety devices on boats smaller than 16-feet, but Hutson said DNR recommends everyone wear life jackets.
Rocco Salinari, an aquatics representative for the American Red Cross in South Carolina, encouraged enrolling children in swim lessons before boating. He said in addition to use of life jackets, the lessons could help prevent drowning in the event of an accident on the water.