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Officials urge safety on the water

Posted: May 24, 2012 - 8:48am
A boater plies Kachemak Bay in May 2010. The Coast Guard Auxiliary has been conducting boat safety inspections this month to help boaters prepare for the season.  M. Scott Moon
M. Scott Moon
A boater plies Kachemak Bay in May 2010. The Coast Guard Auxiliary has been conducting boat safety inspections this month to help boaters prepare for the season.

For the past two weeks, volunteer mariners have conducted free boat examinations on the Central Peninsula, marking the approach of Memorial Day weekend and boating season.

Members of the Kenai Flotilla of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary have examined various personal-use boats to determine if the boats meet federal and state requirements.

"We look for valid registration, personal flotation devices, fire extinguisher," said George Leighton, vice flotilla commander. "And depending on the vessel, we check for other requirements."

Gov. Sean Parnell proclaimed May 19-26 as Safe Boating Week in Alaska. Vessel safety checks are planned throughout the state. Officials are urging residents to follow guidelines and remain cautious when boating.

The last scheduled, free vessel examination is set for Friday at River Sea & Marine in Soldotna. Examined vessels are generally 14 to 27 feet long. Any larger and the boats are difficult to transport, Leighton said.

Depending on the type of vessel, the condition of the backfire-flame arrester -- a safety mechanism that contains fires within engines -- is checked. Boats larger than 16 feet require and are checked for operable navigation lights.

And, of course, personal flotation devices, a.k.a. life jackets. In Alaska, kids under 13 are required to wear life jackets.

"But we recommend that everyone aboard wears (a life jacket)," said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Grant DeVuyst.

The importance of life jackets has been consistently emphasized by many state agencies. The statewide injury prevention program "Kids Don't Float" was developed to address Alaska's high child and youth drowning rate, according to the Office of Boating Safety. It began in Homer in early 1996.

However, nine out of ten boating deaths are adult males, according to OBS. Boating accidents usually result in hypothermia or drowning, due to cold-water immersion and fast currents, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

Other life-saving items boaters should have include communications devices, like radios, satellite phones and emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRB). Some EPIRBs are deployed manually; others react with water contact. They send out messages that let others know of distress and also where the boat is located, DeVuyst said.

Flares and sound-producing devices also can be used to draw the attention of nearby boaters, he said.

Boaters should prepare float plans before departing on a trip. The plan is used as an itinerary that contains the times and locations of departure and expected arrival, number of people and their ages on board and a description of the vessel, among other things.

It then is given to family, friends and the harbormaster. If those individuals feel the party is in danger, they can contact the nearest emergency response officials, DeVuyst said.

More than 80 percent of boating fatalities occur on boats less than 26 feet in length. Inexperience and reckless operation can cause a vessel to capsize or take on water, causing it to sink, but issues can occur during well-prepared ventures.

"Sometimes, there are objects under the water or objects floating in the water that can cause problems," DeVuyst said. "So, it's best, even if you're operating responsibly, to have safe boating equipment on board."

Navigating rivers requires separate knowledge and skills. The Kenai River Special Management Area consists of more than 105 linear miles of rivers and lakes, according to DNR. The waterways often are crowded during the summer months, so the Coast Guard encourages learning the "rules of the road."

Non-motorized boats and boats drifting downstream have the right-of-way. Powered boats headed or pointed upstream must yield to other traffic. Between May 15 and July 31, it is illegal to anchor in a manner that obstructs a primary traffic channel or fishing channel of any section of the Kenai River. To learn more about river safety and regulations, visit http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/kenairiv.htm.

Since October 2011, the Coast Guard's Anchorage sector, which includes the Kenai Peninsula, has experienced two boating deaths. However, 18 lives were saved by Coast Guard responders, DeVuyst said. 

Boaters on the Peninsula who find themselves in dire straits have multiple emergency response agencies to rely on. In addition to the Coast Guard, Central Emergency Services owns three boats used for fire fighting and search and rescue.

Boat One at CES is their primary rescue vessel and can navigate the Kenai River as well as open waters like Cook Inlet.

"Our primary boat is used a lot," said CES Safety Officer Brad Nelson. "Anytime we have a boat take on water or people need transportation, it's called out."

It was last used in October 2011 when two men were rescued after being stranded in a power-less skiff surrounded by rough Cook Inlet waters for almost three hours. The skiff's engine was not working and the vessel started to take on water from the choppy seas, Alaska State Troopers reported.

The Coast Guard recommends boaters start with calm waters, such as a lake. Regardless of plans -- check the weather. 

"Even a normally calm body of water can become the opposite if the weather kicks up," DeVuyst said.
 
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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