Patrols look for signs of boating danger

jprice@newsobserver.com June 25, 2012 

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission enforcement officer Jon Morgan spent Sunday zooming around Falls Lake in a center-console powerboat checking other vessels for required safety equipment and registration, but also keeping an eye out for his main quarry : drunken skippers.

An afternoon of more than 20 quick but through inspection stops yielded only a warning ticket to one boat owner for not having proper safety gear. In part, though, Morgan said, just his presence discouraged excessive drinking by boaters.

“We’re out here a lot, and just our being here is a deterrent, because people know they’re going to get checked,” he said. “They know that if they’re out here two or three weekends that we’re probably going to check them at least once.”

His safety sweep was part of a nation-wide push called Operation Dry Water. The idea is to educate boaters about the dangers of drunken boating as the season gets under way.

Last year the number of boating accidents dropped, but fatalities per registered vessel jumped 14.8 percent, according to Coast Guard records. That was the worst rate since 1998, and drinking was listed as the main cause of the jump.

Alcohol is only the sixth most common contributing factor for boating (number one is failure to keep a proper lookout), but it’s the top contributor in fatal incidents.

In 2011, 125 people died in 296 alcohol-related boating accidents, and 243 were injured.

Falls Lake, a resevoir just north of Raleigh, has less of a problem with drunk boating problem than some of the state’s other lakes. The entire shore is government-owned, with no homes, bars or restaurants, which means everyone comes by road, and that tends to hold the drinking down, Morgan said.

Still, there are drinking arrests and usually one or two alcohol-related accidents a year.

Like the night crash last summer. A man who had been drinking and was on a prescription medication missed a turn at high speed, drove his boat up onto rocks, where two passengers spilled out and were injured and shards of the hull tore away, then continued over the rocks back into the water, where he and another passenger were ejected.

Morgan said he charged the man with operating a vessel while intoxicated and with careless and reckless operation.

The passengers who were tossed onto the rocks suffered broken bones and other injuries, but easily could have been killed, Morgan said.

Morgan said he charged the man with operating a vessel while intoxicated and with careless and reckless operation.

Drunken boating is not only dangerous, it can be expensive if you’re caught. The fine for operating a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol in North Carolina can be as much as $1,000, and you can also get jail time..

Sunday afternoon was broiling, and nearly cloudless, and floating around on the lake was an appealing place for a beer. On a few boats, passengers tried to hide beers as he idled up.

They don’t know that it’s OK for them to drink, and figure better safe than sorry.

But on one runabout, passenger Wes House did nothing to cover up the beer sitting in a built-in holder as Morgan gave his usual “how are you guys doing?”

He is, in a way, a kind of official host on the lake, asking people if they’re having a good time, inquiring if those fishing have caught anything.

Randy Hancock of Knightdale, who had just bought the boat, clearly had never met a stranger. He cheerfully began pelting Morgan with questions about his work and what was allowed on the lake and what wasn’t.

“So he’s drinking a couple of beers,” Hancock said, gesturing toward House. “How about me, what happens if I drink one.”

Morgan saw his chance to educate, and set out the facts.

Drinking is legal for boat operators, but drinking to excess is not.

As when driving a car, you can be arrested if your blood alcohol content is .08 percent or higher, or if you clearly appear to be impaired, he said.

Hancock laughed at the idea of being made to walk a straight line on a boat for a sobriety test. Morgan replied that there were several other ways to test.

Afterwards, as he idled away, Hancock cheerfully told Morgan to have a good day, something that boater after boater did. Two even thanked him for being there and keeping things safe.

“Most people are like that,” he said, of the pleasant encounter with Hancock and House. “Most people don’t have any problem with us. It’s just a very small percentage that cause the problems.”

Morgan idles up to one boat after, checks that there’s a proper life jacket for everyone aboard and that kids are wearing theirs, that there is a throwable float, and that fire extinguishers are charged, and for boat registration and fishing licenses.

All the while scanning for signs the driver has overdone it.

He also looks for erratic driving, boats swerving around, getting too close to other boats. Another giveaway can be speeding in the buoy-marked “no-wake zones” where boats are supposed to ease without making waves.

“That’s a lot like running a stop sign traffic light in a car,” he said.

Some boaters figure with all that wide open water that the rules surely must be looser.

“Some people just don’t understand the dangers, don’t think about what can happen,” Morgan said. “They think that all this water is soft, and it’s not like concrete or pavement, but if you fall on concrete, maybe it hurts, but you can get back up.

“Here, if you hit the water and you’re knocked out, you can sink and drown,” he said, “but people just don’t take the dangers as seriously as they do on the road.”

Price: (919) 829-4526

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