There seems to be some disagreement among folks about when a new week begins; the calendar says it’s Sunday, though many believe it’s when they return to work on Monday. For the boating industry, the week begins on the weekend and Saturday, May 17, marks the beginning of National Safe Boating Week in America.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is on board with that decision and fully endorses the theme of this year’s campaign: “Ready, Set, Wear It.”
“One of our biggest concerns is making sure people understand the importance of wearing PFDs (personal flotation devices),” said Lt. Andrew Turner, the DNR’s boating law administrator. “The Coast Guard estimates that 80 percent of boating fatalities could be prevented by wearing life jackets.”
Though all boaters are required to have PFDs on board for all boat passengers, generally only those younger than 6 years old are required to actually wear them.
“In an emergency, people don’t have time to find them and get them on,” Turner said. “Today’s PFDs are not the old bulky orange vests that everybody remembers as a kid. Now they’re lighter and more comfortable. They’re designed to be worn all the time. There are inflatables available now that are very low-profile, comfortable and suitable for many activities.”
Many, but not all activities, Turner continued. Personal watercraft operators – or people being towed behind vessels, such are skiers – are required by state law to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD, but inflatables are not approved for those and some other uses.
Boating is getting safer in Michigan, Turner said. Last year there were 20 fatal accidents – resulting in 22 fatalities – down from 32 fatalities five years earlier.
“I think we can directly link that trend to boating safety training,” Turner said.
A state law, passed in 2012, requires that anyone born after July 1, 1996, is required to attend (and be certified in) safe boating training in order to operate a motorboat. The change in the law – which once required only those younger than 16 years of age to be safety-trained – means that over time everyone who operates a motorboat will have received the training.
“The leading age group for boating accidents is people in their 50s,” Turner said. “We wouldn’t think of letting someone drive a car without driver’s education, but many people simply don't consider getting boater's safety training before operating a vessel.”
Boating safety training is available from a number of sources, including the DNR, which partnered with the Michigan Boating Industries Association to hold classes at the Detroit Boat Show this year. Training is also available through county sheriffs’ departments (82 of Michigan’s 83 counties offer the training through their marine programs), volunteer groups, and online. The online option makes it easy for anyone, Turner said.
“There are two great programs – boat-ed.com and boaterexam.com – that allow people to earn their safety certification completely online,” Turner said. “Students can print their certificates when they successfully complete the course. There is a fee, but most people don’t mind paying it because of the convenience.”
Turner said boaters should familiarize themselves with safety equipment and make sure they have it and it is in good working order. Boats with a permanently installed fuel tank or enclosed compartments are required to have a fire extinguisher on board, for instance. The DNR also recommends that boaters have a marine radio – or at least a cell phone – to use if their vessel becomes disabled or they otherwise need assistance.
Boating under the influence remains a big issue for Michigan as well as the rest of the country.
“It’s a serious concern,” said Turner, noting that about 10 percent of boating accidents list alcohol as a contributing factor. “Just as it is with motor vehicles, it’s dangerous and unlawful to operate a vessel under the influence."
Turner said boaters should also keep a sharp eye out, and be aware that there are increasingly more personal watercraft (PWC) out on the water. PWCs, which make up only about 8 percent of the registered boats in Michigan, are involved in roughly a third of boating accidents.
“PWCs are fast, very maneuverable and can turn on a dime," Turner said. "The operational characteristics of PWCs vary a great deal from traditional vessels and this underscores the importance of training,” Turner said.
Michigan is about as big a boating state as there is, Turner said.
“We’re second only to Florida in terms of the number of registered vessels,” he said. “We have tremendous resources. We want people to enjoy those resources – but we want them to do it safely.”