Independence Day is a time for people to have fun and let their hair down a bit.
That’s fine when both feet are firmly planted on the ground, but it can get troublesome if those feet are planted on the deck of a boat.
The Fourth of July is one of the heaviest boating days of the year. It’s the height of summer, the weather is hot, and thousands of people head for rivers and lakes to cool off a bit.
Lt. Ed Goodson, boating safety officer for the West Virginia Natural Resources Police, said crowded waterways, the heat, and copious quantities of alcohol comprise a perfect formula for boating accidents.
“Most accidents can be prevented,” Goodson added, “if people just keep a few basic things in mind.”
Number one on Goodson’s list of basics is to have enough life jackets in the boat, and to wear them when appropriate.
“The law says there should be at least one life jacket for everyone on board,” he explained. “Even if you aren’t wearing them, they should be readily available.”
Those are the rules for adults. Children fall under different rules.
“Any time the boat is underway, all children age 12 and under must be wearing their life jackets,” Goodson said. “And unless a boat is anchored, it is considered to be underway. If you’re drifting with the current with the motor off, you’re still underway as far as the law is concerned.”
The law even applies to non-motorized craft such as canoes and kayaks.
“It’s not ‘just a canoe or a kayak,’” Goodson explained. “It’s a vessel, and occupants of vessels must have life jackets.”
Number two on Goodson’s list of basics involves alcoholic beverages.
“Whoever is piloting the boat has to remain sober,” he said.
That’s not easy in the midsummer heat. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it robs the body of the fluids and electrolytes it needs to function properly. The heat causes people to sweat, which further reduces those fluids and electrolytes.
“The bottom line is that you can get drunk a lot faster when you’re out in the sun,” Goodson said. “You get dehydrated, and that intensifies the effects of alcohol.”
During this entire Fourth of July weekend, Natural Resources Police officers will be involved in “Operation Dry Water,” an effort to crack down on drunk boating.
“We urge everyone to have at least one person, someone who can operate the boat, to remain sober so everyone gets back to the dock safely,” Goodson said. “When you put people in a boat, someone has to be responsible for their well-being.”
Water skiing and tubing are popular Fourth-of-July boating activities, and they’re the focus of Goodson’s third basic rule of thumb: Have a rearward-facing observer keeping an eye on the person being towed.
This, he said, allows the boat’s pilot to watch ahead for hazards and not have to turn around to monitor what’s going on behind the boat.
“The sole exception to that is if the boat is equipped with a wide-angle rearview mirror,” he added. “If the boat doesn’t have that, there needs to be a rear-facing observer. And that goes for jet skis as well as motorboats.”
What’s more, towing is only allowed between sunrise and sunset.
“That’s to make sure there’s enough light for skiers and tubers to be seen,” Goodson explained.
The same sunrise-to-sunset rule, he said, also applies to jet-ski operation.
“And there are a couple of other things jet-ski users need to know,” he added. “One is to have a lanyard-style cutoff switch, which must be attached to the driver. The other is that there are no brakes on a jet ski.”
Goodson said it’s common for rookie jet-ski operators to see trouble ahead and let completely off on the throttle.
“That’s a big mistake,” he explained. “If you shut off the flow of water through the jet, you have no steering. Your best bet is to slow down, but keep enough power on so you can still steer.”
In large, navigable rivers such as the Kanawha or Ohio, barge traffic can be a concern. Goodson’s fourth rule of thumb is to stay out of their way.
“You see those red lights blinking on bridges?” he asked. “Those are channel markers. You shouldn’t anchor in a channel because big barge tows come through there.”
Goodson said law enforcement officers call barges “the silent death.”
“The towboat is so far back behind some of those long barge tows that you can’t hear the boat’s engine,” he said. “And after dark, you don’t see the fronts of the barges until they’re right on top of you.”
Goodson said the best way to learn how to boat safely is to take a boat operator’s course like the one offered by the Natural Resources Police.
“If you’re born after Dec. 31, 1986, you’re required to have completed a course before you can operate a motorboat,” he added.
“We would prefer you take a traditional in-person class, because you can ask questions and talk with people. But it’s also possible to take an online course. We have links to five or six of them on our website, www.wvdnr.gov, under ‘law enforcement.’”
Knowing the laws that govern motorboat use can help avoid trouble on holidays like Independence Day, when conditions for violations are ripest and law enforcement officers are out in force to make sure violators get caught before they can harm themselves or someone else.
“We’re not out there to ruin anyone’s fun,” Goodson said. “We just want you to boat safely.”