Montana mulls regulation of snowmobiles on water after man's drowning death

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2001

HELENA, Mont. -- Gary Hoyt couldn't swim and was afraid of the water. Yet friends apparently persuaded him to climb aboard a snowmobile, open the throttle and drive it across a reservoir on a hot July evening.

Hoyt made it safely to the opposite shore, skipping the heavy machine over the water's surface. He turned the sled around on the bank and gunned the engine to begin the 200-yard return trip.

Just 50 feet out, the snowmobile lost momentum and plummeted to the bottom. Hoyt, 46, without a life jacket, went down with it.

His July 8 drowning was the first in Montana connected to an increasingly popular pastime called ''water skipping,'' and it has prompted state officials to consider regulating the activity.

The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission planned to take up the issue at a meeting here Thursday.

The practice involves gunning a snowmobile down a bank or boat ramp into the water at full speed and hydroplaning across the water's surface. But the 500-pound machines aren't designed for water and don't float.

A snowmobile that runs out of gas, stalls or even slows down too much will sink immediately.

''I'd like to see some type of regulation because it's unsafe in my point of view,'' said Beate Galda, head of enforcement for the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. ''I'm concerned for the safety of the rider and any other recreationist who might be using the same area.''

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that each year about 110 snowmobilers die and 13,400 require hospitalization but the data isn't broken down by season.

Since snowmobiles were never intended to be used on water, they are not covered by boating laws, Galda said. And snowmobile riders -- unlike water skiers and personal watercraft pilots -- are not required to wear life jackets. Even laws prohibiting motor vehicles from being driven into most waterways don't apply to snow sleds, she said.

''Our laws are just not set up for summer use by snowmobilers,'' Galda said.

Galda said she surveyed 11 other states and only Nebraska bans water skipping. Michigan requires the machines be registered as boats and subject to boating laws if they are to be used on water.

Montana's commission may consider emergency regulations to ban or restrict snowmobile use on public waters, or decide to begin adopting regulations. Legislative action would be needed to extend boating laws to the machines, Galda said.

The Montana Snowmobile Association has urged the commission to study the issue more before it acts. Fay Lesmeister, the association president, wants the commission to evaluate alternatives and gather public comment first.

''This activity, if handled appropriately, should have no more of a hazardous or dangerous element to it than riding a personalized watercraft or a high-performance race boat, providing the correct set of safety requirements are in place,'' he wrote in a letter to the department.

Water skipping, or watercross, is not a new phenomenon. The annual world championships debuted in Grantsburg, Wis., in July 1977 and campgrounds from Michigan to New York advertise the sport.

Critics say the activity creates problems besides those posed to the driver.

The machines cause wakes near shore, putting boaters, swimmers and water skiers at risk, said Montana Game Warden Capt. Terry Hill. And a sunken snowmobile can leak oil and gas into the water, he added.

Tom Hafer, owner of Anaconda Motor Sports, said he has tried water skipping and doesn't believe regulations are needed. While water skipping is extremely popular in the Midwest and East, he said few people will risk losing their pricey machines.

''It's never going to amount to a big deal here because they don't float,'' he said. ''You'll have your extremists who want to try it, but most won't want to take their $7,000 to $8,000 machines out on the water.''


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