By Katie Gervasi, Communications Representative, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division

Photo above credited to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

For water-loving families like mine, this is one of the most exciting times of the year. Rain or shine, the July Fourth holiday means we’re at the family cottage and (weather permitting) on the boat.

As a kid, I remember packing the boat with coolers containing favorite snacks, rafts and buckets of sand toys – a tradition I’m fortunate to continue with my kids.

Whether it’s a Great Lakes boat, pontoon, personal watercraft, kayak or canoe, take the time to consider marine safety, not just for your July Fourth voyage, but every time you boat.

Surrounding the July Fourth holiday, Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers and many other local and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the state will participate in Operation Dry Water – a national law enforcement campaign promoting sober boating.

This means there will be more DNR conservation officers and other law enforcement officers conducting marine patrols, July 4-6 this year.

“Just like the drunk driving campaigns you see on the highway, conservation officers conduct similar drunk boating patrols on the water,” said Lt. Tom Wanless, supervisor with the DNR’s recreational safety, education and enforcement section. “We realize this is a time when many people are on vacation and have spent a lot of time planning to hit the water and relax, but please don’t ignore safety just because you’re on the water.”

Alcohol was the main contributing factor in 17% of fatal boating accidents (when the cause was known), and among the top 10 primary contributing factors of recreational boating accidents, according to 2023 U.S. Coast Guard statistics.

Since the inception of the Operation Dry Water in 2009, law enforcement officers have removed 6,869 people who were boating under the influence (BUI) from the nation’s waterways and made contact with over 2.8 million boaters during the annual three-day weekend.

In 2023, 488 local, state and federal agencies participated in Operation Dry Water, contacting 302,146 boaters, making 717 BUI arrests and issuing 42,822 citations and warnings for safety violations.

Alcohol impairs a boater’s judgment, balance, vision and reaction time, and can increase fatigue and susceptibility to the effects of cold-water immersion. Sun, wind, noise, vibration and motion – elements common to the boating environment – intensify the side effects of alcohol, drugs and some medications.

“One of the best things you can do when on the water is to ride with a sober operator who has completed an accredited boater safety course,” said Wanless.

In 2023, 75% of recreational boating fatalities occurred on boats where the operator had no previous boating safety instruction, according to the USCG.

“Many people doing something dangerous don’t even realize it,” said Gary Owen, marine deputy in Kalkaska County. “I see people all the time placing their children on the front of a boat – not considering the danger of what happens when that child goes in the water, how long will it take for a child to go under the boat to the prop area. I’d rather write a parent a ticket for no life jacket then have to search for a child.”

In Michigan, boaters born after June 30, 1996, and most personal watercraft (Jet Ski) operators who operate a vessel in Michigan must have a boater safety certificate, and children under the age of 6 must wear a USCG-approved life jacket while riding on the open deck of any vessel while underway.

In 2023, drowning was the cause of death in 75% of fatal boating accidents; of those fatalities, 87% of individuals who drowned were not wearing a life jacket, according to the USCG.

As a born and raised competitive swimmer, lifeguard and swim instructor who has spent almost every warm-weather weekend of my life boating Michigan waters, I like to believe my crowd is pretty safe on the water.

I can personally attest to the importance of not only having the appropriate USCG-life jacket, but actually wearing it.

Several years ago, my regular kayak group was ‘yaking our normal stretch of the Looking Glass River, near Dewitt, after a significant spring rain. The river was elevated, with a fast current. The usually mild river suddenly picked up speed and scattered members of our group, sending some under down trees and colliding with rocks. One of our members even capsized, submerged and got stuck under his kayak for a brief time. Luckily, everyone was OK, but it was a stern message from Mother Nature to always be prepared and to not only have your life jacket – but to wear it.

When my youngest was 2, my husband was helping my oldest climb onto a tube at the back of the boat. With my youngest in my eyesight and just out of arm’s reach, it took a split second for the water-loving, “I will do what the big kids are doing,” 2-year-old to put her foot on top of the fastened buoy mount next to the captain’s chair and throw herself off the side of the boat.

Thank goodness, she was wearing her life jacket and was perfectly fine – my husband at her side within a second. She was inches away from me, yet as 2-year-olds do, still managed to create havoc.

Accidents happen. Be prepared. Wear a life jacket – life jackets float, people don’t.

A final important reminder, which many take for granted, is to ensure your vessel is in good operating condition before you leave shore, including:

  • Make sure the boat is properly equipped and everything is in good working condition.
  • In addition to legally required equipment such as life jackets and fire extinguishers, always carry a first-aid kit, nautical charts and an anchor. Remember, cell phones die and lose signal.
  • Make sure navigation lights work properly.
  • Ensure the cabin of your vessel has appropriate ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Boating safety doesn’t end at Labor Day. Many people continue boating, especially to go fishing, into the fall. It’s even more crucial to wear a life jacket in the autumn, as falling into the cooling water increases your risk of hypothermia, regardless of how good of a swimmer you are.

For additional information about boating safety, boater safety certificate, boating laws or places to boat, visit Michigan.gov/Boating.

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