Playing it safe in boats

photo by Robert Sloan

One thing is certain about boating – its unpredictable adventure on just about every trip out.

A Texas game warden got a call about a missing boat that was last seen on Lake Somerville. The boat’s occupants were already two hours late getting home. The wind was blowing over 30 miles an hour that day, and the waves were over 4 feet. The boaters got lucky. They were found. The high waves had caused the boat to take on water and sink, forcing the occupants to swim to shore. One of them was taken to the hospital for hypothermia, but they were otherwise OK.

A Limestone County game warden got a call about a father and son who hadn’t returned home from their fishing trip. After calling both her husband and son multiple times, the wife and her other son went to Lake Limestone to look for their missing family members. They found the dad’s truck and trailer, but his boat was nowhere to be seen. When the warden arrived he saw a light flashing sporadically in the distance, in the middle of the lake. The warden launched his boat and, upon arriving at the source of the light, found a man and child sitting on top of a capsized vessel. High winds had caused the boat to take on water and capsize on top of a tree stump, which kept the boat partially above water. The father and son, who were both wearing life jackets, were OK, though they were very cold, hungry and shaken.

Another fact is that drinking and boating is a dangerous combination, especially if you get caught drunk on the water by a game warden. A boating under the influence charge is just as serious, and expensive, as a DUI.

Over last summer’s three-day Operation Dry Water weekend, Texas game wardens made contact with 22,732 recreational boaters, issued 1,147 tickets and made 17 BUI arrests in an effort to raise awareness of the dangers of boating under the influence of drugs or alcohol. During last year’s Fourth of July holiday, game wardens made contact with roughly 30,000 recreational boaters and arrested 58 operators for boating under the influence. In addition, game wardens filed 39 minor in possession of alcohol cases and eight drug related cases.

Summer doesn’t actually begin until June 20, but with warming weather, thousands of boaters are taking advantage of fishing and water skiing opportunities on our many lakes, rivers and bayous across Texas. But before you go it’ll pay to know what some of the rules are on the water.

For example, did you know that open containers in a boat are legal, but operators of boats are subject to boating while intoxicated laws, similar to driving a vehicle? And operators or passengers may also be subject to public intoxication laws. Drinking and boating is the cause of most boating fatalities, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

One sure-fire way to get a ticket while boating is to break the law regarding the use of lifejackets, aka PFDs (personal flotation devices):

• Children under 13 years of age in or on vessels under 26 feet must wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved wearable PFD while underway.

• All vessels under 16 feet (including canoes and kayaks) must be equipped with one PFD Type I-V for each person on board.

• For boats 16 feet and longer, in addition to the Type I-V PFD for each person on board, must have one Type IV throwable device that must be readily accessible. Canoes and kayaks over 16 feet are exempt from the Type IV requirement.

When selecting a PFD, the proper size is important. Too small may not keep you afloat and too large may come off on impact if you are suddenly thrown into the water. A PFD should be snug around the torso and when lifting on the shoulder straps, should not come past the bottom of the ears. PFDs are sized by weight and chest size and should be tried on before purchasing to assure a proper fit for the person that will be wearing it.

In Texas, not everybody is allowed to run a boat. For example, a person cannot operate a windblown vessel over 14 feet in length, a motorboat with more than 15 horsepower or personal watercraft unless he or she:

• Was born on or after September 1, 1993, and has passed a boater education class or equivalency examination prescribed by TPWD.

• Is 18 years of age and can lawfully operate the motorboat and is on board the boat when underway.

• Is at least 13 years of age and has successfully completed a boater education course approved by TPWD.

A boat is one of the most enjoyable and fun “toys” you’ll ever find. I’ve owned 17 of them over the past four decades. And I’ve had my share of mishaps on the water. But overall, I’ve found that boating is an outdoor adventure that everybody should at least check out once in their lifetime.