It's that time of year when eyes light up at the thought of catching monstrous Cook Inlet halibut or salmon. Memorial Day weekend marks the official beginning of the season and a steady line of boat-towing vehicles on the Seward Highway is heading toward favorite launch sites.
'Alaska's boating safety fatality rate remains the highest per capita in the nation, approximately 10 times the national rate.'
--United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
Injecting a safety focus into the weekend, the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary is conducting free vessel safety checks at locations around the state, including Deep Creek Beach State Recreation Area, just south of Ninilchik. The activity coincides with National Safe Boating Week.
Information supplied by the auxiliary reports that "Alaska's boating safety fatality rate remains the highest per capita in the nation, approximately 10 times the national rate." In nine out of 10 cases, the victim was not wearing a life jacket.
On Thursday afternoon, Bill Call, with the Auxiliary's Eagle River flotilla, was conducting vessel checks at Deep Creek. One half of the checklist consisted of federal and state requirements. The third item on the list was the too-often-missing personal flotation devices.
"This is the first year state laws are the same as federal laws for boating safety," said Call, who has been conducting these checks for the past five years.
The second half of Call's checklist was comprised of recommended and discussion items. Although an anchor and anchor line are recommended items, listening to Call's past experience of having his anchor drag and his boat drift north of Deep Creek because of inadequate line underscored the wisdom of having these items on board.
In order for Call to retain his inspector status, he must inspect 10 boats. However, that won't be a problem with the 100 boats and five more examiners Call expects to arrive over the weekend.
In the space that Alaska Parks personnel have reserved for vessel inspections, John Amerson, of Eagle River, took advantage of the free vessel safety check. Call colored his inspection with stories of boating incidents on the inlet.
Completing the check of Amerson's 25-foot boat made by Peregrine Marine, Call reviewed his findings with the boat owner, pointing out the need for flares.
Getting ready to head back to Eagle River before the weekend crowds arrive, Amerson, who has been fishing on the inlet for eight years, reported that he and the five others fishing on his boat had limited out on halibut, lost one king salmon and caught another.
Like Call, Rod Van Saun, of Ninilchik, also had stories about boating incidents on the inlet. His have been gathered during the 12 years he's fished on Cook Inlet and as a board member and ambulance driver for the Ninilchik Commun-ity Ambulance Association.
"A lot of people coming down here don't really know what they're doing," Van Saun said. "People go out fishing in weather they shouldn't be out in. And another issue is people in poor shape trying to fish. Halibut fishing is strenuous work.
"Heart attacks are not a far-fetched thing out there."
Van Saun suggested that people with no experience on Cook Inlet fish with those who are familiar with the quick-moving waters until they have the experience needed.
His comments were in line with the Coast Guard Auxiliary's recommendations to boaters:
n Use Coast Guard-approved life jackets while on boats and engaged in water sports;
n File float plans;
n Know the boat's limitations; and
n Consider the water and weather conditions before getting under way.
Looking at the swells of an incoming tide, Call said he hoped the weather improves for the weekend.
"Have you ever tried to launch here with the wind blowing, the tide running and the waves hitting?" he asked. In response to his own question, he told the story about the time his boat's propeller got torn off.
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