Boating safety

A conservation officer for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources checks the fishing license of an angler in a kayak on Beaver Lake in Anderson County. The kayak angler is wearing a life jacket, a vital piece of safety equipment for operators of paddlecraft such as kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. Wearing a life jacket is one of the many safety precautions paddlers and boaters must keep in mind before hitting the water on the Labor Day holiday weekend.

The sun sets earlier each day and the kids are back in school. Summer is all but over. This inevitability prompts many to visit lakes, rivers and streams to get in that last weekend of the summer boating season during the Labor Day holiday weekend.

“Our busiest weekend of the year,” said Maj. Shane Carrier, assistant director of law enforcement for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Traditionally, Labor Day marks the end of the boating season.”

The crowded conditions common on this holiday weekend make observance of simple boating safety procedures vital to a safe weekend for everyone.

The law requires each passenger in a vessel to have a personal floatation device, commonly called a life jacket, readily accessible for use. “I cannot stress enough the importance of wearing a life jacket,” Carrier said. He explained that a life jacket stored in a compartment or stuffed under a seat is not readily accessible.

“You must be able to get to the life jacket quickly when you need it,” Carrier said.

Sales of paddlecraft such as kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards are booming, but wearing a life jacket while paddling is of paramount importance for safety.

“Paddlecraft use is growing by leaps and bounds across Kentucky,” Carrier said. “Many paddlecraft users overlook the safety aspect. Paddlecraft are slow and do not have a motor. This lulls people into a false sense of security. I strongly suggest wearing a life jacket at all times when operating a paddlecraft.”

Carrier said he sees many stand-up paddleboard operators with their life jacket strapped to the front of the paddleboard. “That doesn’t work well if you fall over and hit your head,” he said.

Paddlecraft now line the front of sporting goods, department and hardware stores awaiting a buyer.

“People buy paddlecraft with no training or experience and get in over their head, especially in moving water,” Carrier said. “Leave a float plan with a loved one and get a dry bag to store a charged cellphone on your boat in case you get in trouble.”

Carrier said the law enforcement division spent many hours this year on search and rescue efforts to look for paddlers. “We’ve had quite a few misjudge their take out or how long it takes to paddle there,” he said. “They must know how long it takes to get the float completed. If there is low water and you have to drag a boat over riffles and shoals, it takes time.”

Avoiding alcoholic drinks is one of the smartest safety decisions boaters can make. “Drinking in public is against the law in Kentucky and our waterways are public places,” Carrier said.

The combination of hours in the sun, heat and movement of the boat can induce a mild stupor called boater’s fatigue. “Alcohol intensifies boater’s fatigue,” Carrier said. “This condition can lead to poor decisions on the water.”

Carrier stressed the importance of checking safety equipment to ensure it is in good working order.

A boat with a motor must have a working fire extinguisher on board at all times. “Store the fire extinguisher away from the engine,” Carrier said. “On some boats with inboard-outboard motors, the fire extinguisher is mounted in the engine compartment. If you have a fire, you will burn yourself trying to get to it.”

All vessels over 16 feet in length must have a hand, mouth or power-operated signaling device such as a loud whistle or boat horn. They must also have working red and green navigation lights in the bow of the vessel and a steady white light visible from 360 degrees in the stern.

Boat operators must display these lights from sunset to sunrise in areas where other boats navigate, whether the boat is under power or anchored.

Some boaters mistakenly believe you do not need working navigation lights if you only operate the boat during daylight hours. Mechanical failures, dead batteries or getting lost can prevent a boat from getting back to the dock or ramp before nightfall when you must display these lights. Therefore, lights must be in working condition no matter when you operate the boat.

“You need a light at night so you don’t get run over by another boat,” Carrier said.

Each vessel must have a Type IV throwable personal floatation device such as a float cushion or ring readily accessible for use.

“Although this isn’t boating related, we’ve had multiple people this year drown from swimming,” Carrier said. “People, especially teenagers, try to swim beyond their ability and misjudge the distance. Peer pressure can induce them to try to swim across a large cove and then it is too late.”

Obey these simple safeguards and make the Labor Day weekend memorable for the right reasons.

– Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.

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