August 23, 2014

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Coast Guard focuses on safety as boating season ramps up

A fisherman hands his life jacket to Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Eberl for inspection as the U.S. Coast Guard performs random onboard inspections of watercraft Sunday afternoon. ANNA NORRIS/CHRONICLE

A fisherman hands his life jacket to Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Eberl for inspection as the U.S. Coast Guard performs random onboard inspections of watercraft Sunday afternoon. ANNA NORRIS/CHRONICLE

LORAIN — Summer begins Saturday, but the summer boating season is already underway.

The season unofficially runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day and includes boating enforcement. Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Eberl of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Lorain station said most boaters are safe, but as Labor Day approaches, risk increases.

Equipment begins to break down, and some boaters become careless.

“That’s when you see the accidents happen,” Eberl said during a Sunday patrol on Lake Erie.

The Lorain station is responsible for patrolling between Sherod Park in Vermilion and Avon Point in Avon and from Lorain to the Canadian border about 20 nautical miles away. Patrols usually consist of four or five members. Members generally serve four-year tours at the station allowing them time to familiarize themselves with the area.

Patrols are done in a 45-foot, twin-engine, jet-propelled patrol boat. The $2 million, 1,650-horsepower boat, purchased in September, has a maximum speed of about 42 knots, equivalent to 45 mph on land.

At full speed, the ride is often bouncy, but the five-member crew wasn’t complaining Sunday. They say the vessel is an improvement over the 41-foot, propeller-driven boat in use since 1978.

“It’s pretty much a big Jet Ski,” said fireman Jacob Metzger. “It’s pretty incredible.”

The boat decreases response time, which can be the difference between life and death. A rapid response is credited with saving a suicidal woman who jumped Dec. 5 from the Bascule Bridge into freezing waters about 150 yards from the station at 110 Alabama Ave. Other rescues last year included a man who slammed his boat into a breakwall in Lorain and people using personal watercraft that had the engines flood.

Besides carelessness, inexperience or recklessness and alcohol can lead to accidents. Alcohol contributed to about 17 percent of the 560 deaths on the water nationally last year, according to Coast Guard statistics.

Eberl said drunken boaters are rare, but crews are always on the lookout for them. A few boat operators suspected of being drunk are turned over to police each season.

Another major cause of death is drowning due to not wearing a life preserver. About 400 drowning victims nationally last year weren’t wearing preservers.

Eberl inspects a fire extinguisher on board a personal watercraft  as he and  Fireman E3 Jacob Metzger perform inspections Sunday afternoon.

Eberl inspects a fire extinguisher on board a personal watercraft
as he and Fireman E3 Jacob Metzger perform inspections Sunday afternoon.

Life jackets for each person on board a boat are required in Ohio, although anyone older than 10 years isn’t required to wear them on the boat. Checking for preservers is one of the main things crew members do when conducting inspections. Other items checked are a fire extinguisher, a portable flotation device that people can cling to in the water and whether equipment like horns and radios are working properly.

If a boat passes inspection, boaters are given a gold-colored form good for the season. If boaters are stopped a second time during the season they can display it to avoid another inspection.

“Good as gold,” Eberl joked.

Eberl said the emphasis is on education rather than enforcement. Because boaters aren’t required to be licensed like drivers, some can be inexperienced.

“Anybody can go out and buy a boat,” he said. “You don’t have to learn anything. You just have to be able to put it in the water.”

Inexperience or unfamiliarity with the lake can lead to mistakes. Eberl said many boaters don’t realize they cannot exceed 5 knots or leave a wake while in the channel. By creating awareness through random stops, Eberl said accidents can be reduced.

“There are rules out there and equipment you need to have,” he said. “We’re not out there trying to hassle people. We just want to make sure they’re safe.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.

Boating Enforcement

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Lorain station say most boaters on Lake Erie are safe, but accidents and incidents occasionally occur. In 2013, Lorain station efforts included:

  • 224 random inspections
  • 44 searches and rescues
  • 13 lives saved due to searches and rescues
  • 51 people assisted in searches and rescues

SOURCE: U.S. Coast Guard