Boating safety especially crucial in icy Sierra lakes | SierraSun.com
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Boating safety especially crucial in icy Sierra lakes

JOELLE BABULA, Sun News Service

“When one asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say ‘uneventful.’ I have never been in any accident … I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.” – Edward J. Smith, 1907, Captain of the RMS Titanic, which sunk just five years later.

You just never know.

Lake Tahoe may not have chunks of ice floating in it, but the water is frigid and the lake can be dangerous, even to an experienced boater.

“There’s not a lot of boating safety in Tahoe,” said Captain Ron Kirby, a professional boater licensed by the United States Coast Guard as well as one of the captains of the Tahoe Gal and a boat broker in Homewood. “People are coming up here and buying boats without any boating experience. Tahoe can be a very demanding lake.”

And if you have very little or no experience handling a boat and navigating through wind and waves, you could find yourself in some trouble.

“Inexperience is a big cause of accidents, so is not maintaining awareness and alcohol is definitely a factor,” said Chief Roland McKinnon with the U.S. Coast Guard station in Tahoe City.

Most people wouldn’t dream of zipping around freeways in a car without ever having set foot behind the wheel before, but often people don’t think much of crashing through waves and pulling skiers in a water craft with zero driving experience.

“A lot of people don’t think about a boat as a vehicle that can travel at high speed with no brakes,” McKinnon said.

Capt. Kirby agrees.

“A boat is more like driving a space ship than a car, there’s very little friction and there are no brakes,” Kirby said. “You can buy yourself a 35-foot boat up here that goes 100 mph and just go crazy.”

So it’s important to be careful, know your boat, keep it maintained, watch the weather and know the rules and regulations on the lake.

And wear your life jacket. Because you never know.

“Just last week there was a boating accident where one boat went over the top of another boat at night and two people had to jump out to avoid injury,” McKinnon said. “A life jacket is extremely important. You can end up in the water in a matter of seconds. We (members of the U.S. Coast Guard) wear life jackets the moment we get on board, that’s our policy.”

Because the lake doesn’t care if you’re a good swimmer.

“Lake Tahoe is a big lake and the water is cold,” Kirby said. “You don’t have a long time before hypothermia sets in. Now it’s about 52 degrees and you’ve still got the wind.”

Children six years and younger are required to wear approved personal flotation devices (PFD’s) at all times, and everyone else must have an accessible PFD that fits properly on board the vessel.

“Not having enough life jackets on board is a termination offense,” McKinnon said. “We’ll actually escort you back to shore and terminate your voyage.”

Wearing life jackets and having plenty on board the boat is vital, but boating safety begins before you even climb on to your craft.

“Listen to the radio for weather,” Kirby said. “You need to be hip to the weather conditions. Be aware that the wind comes in every day and that waves can be four foot easy, sometimes bigger.”

When coming across large waves, Kirby says it’s important to not cruise directly into the waves, but to enter them at a 45 degree angle and go as slow as possible.

“You have to traverse your way across and go as slow as you can,” Kirby said. “These waves are shorter and steeper then ocean waves.”

In order to monitor weather before and during your voyage, it’s important to invest in a radio, not only to weather watch, but to radio for help if and when you need it.

“A VHF Marine Ban radio is an essential piece of safety equipment on a boat. A cell phone is only good for making reservations at your favorite restaurant,” Kirby said. “On a radio, all commercial vessels can hear you and you’re on stand by, you can direct people to you, you’re on the air.”

Besides having a radio on board, it’s also wise to have an anchor with the correct length of chain for securing your vessel. According to Kirby, too many people don’t have enough chain or simply use a rope which doesn’t allow the anchor to sink into the lake bottom and keep you from roaming.

“An anchor is a safety device, not just a device of convenience,” Kirby said. “If you run out of gas and the wind is throwing you to shore, you need to be able to put an anchor in that will hold you. You need to have one foot of chain for every foot of boat on your anchor.”

Now that you’ve got some of the vital equipment taken care of, it’s time to navigate your boat.

“Don’t hit anything,” Kirby said. “If you suspect you’re on a collision course with another boat, change course so you pass behind the boat, don’t try and go in front.”

Also, with all the water skiers, wake boarders and tubers trailing behind other boats, it’s important to recognize that they may wipe out at any moment.

“You never know if they’re going to fall,” Kirby said. “Stay clear, well clear of boats with skiers, boarders or tubers behind them.”

Besides dealing with the rules of the waterways during the day, it’s important to change gears if you’re boating at night.

“Slow down and never, never, never go out at night without the lights on,” Kirby said. “You must always have your navigation lights on.”

Prior to a boating excursion, both Kirby and McKinnon recommend having a “float plan.”

In other words, let people know where you’re going, when you’re going and what time you plan on coming back.

And finally, if you’re new to the boating world and even if you’re experienced, take a boating safety class.

There’s one offered through the Coast Guard station in Tahoe City.

“I always recommend my clients take the small boat handling class at the Coast Guard,” Kirby said. “It’s a great class, I’ve taken it myself.”

For information, call the Coast Guard at 583-4433.


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