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Sheriff's Corner: Be safe on the water

As long as it seemed to get here, the boating season is already upon us. Fortunately, we did not have a serious boating accident or drowning incident in 2013. The Cass County Sheriff’s Office wants you to stay safe on the water this year, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro. We have combined a series of helpful tips and reminders to help make your time on the water enjoyable and safe this year.

Always wear your personal flotation device (PFD or life jacket), especially in small boats. Approved PFDs are now stylish, comfortable and practical. Models are available for all ages and for various boating activities. Falls overboard and capsizing are the most common causes of death among boaters. In a small boat, resist the urge to stand up. If you must move around, keep your weight low and close to the center of the craft.

Children under 10 years old are now required to wear a life jacket while boating in Minnesota, except when the boat is anchored and being used as a swimming platform or the child is below decks or in an enclosure or cabin on the craft.

Collisions with a second boat or another object don’t just happen. They are usually the result of inattention, fatigue and/or a lack of knowledge about local water conditions. Always pay attention to your surroundings, especially at dusk, dawn and in foggy conditions. If you have passengers in the boat, have them be spotters for you.

Keep an eye on the weather, as you know weather can change rapidly. Obtain up-to-date weather information from a marine band radio, AM radio or by simply watching the sky. There are also many weather warning apps available for your smartphone. The Sheriff’s Office Dispatch Center does monitor the Marine Band (Leech Lake area) and will make severe weather announcements on this channel. If you are caught in rough weather put on your PFD, keep low in your boat and head for the closest shore. In heavy waves, your boat handles best when you head into the waves at an angle.

Inflatable toys are no substitute for PFDs or swimming skills. Learn how to swim. Know your swimming ability. Supervise youngsters around the water.

If someone is in trouble in the water, use basic rescue methods first, such as throwing something that floats to the victim. Only as a last resort should you ever enter the water to save someone.

The most basic tip — before you leave on a boating or fishing trip, let someone know where you are going and when you will return. If you run into trouble, this will assist authorities in looking for you.

Always avoid alcohol! Alcohol is involved in about one third of all boating fatalities. Alcohol also adversely affects vital body functions such as balance, coordination, vision and judgment. Combining the effects of cold water and alcohol can speed the onset of hypothermia (a dangerous cooling of the body’s inner temperature), causing even good swimmers to drown in minutes, often within a few yards of safety. Even without drinking, four hours exposure to environmental stressors such as sun, wind, noise, vibration and temperature produce a kind of boater’s hypnosis which can slow your reaction time almost as much as if you were drunk. Adding alcohol to these stressors could have dangerous results.

Hypothermia (below normal body temperature) is involved in as many as one-half of Minnesota’s boating deaths each year. Immersion in cold water (less than 70 degrees) causes the body to lose heat faster than it can produce it, decreasing the body’s inner (core) temperature. This decrease can cause symptoms ranging from continual shivering, poor coordination and numb hands and feet in moderate cases to hallucinations and eventual death in most extreme situations. Cold water robs body heat 25 times faster than air of the same temperature, so if you capsize or fall out of your boat, immediately attempt to reboard your craft. Most small boats, if overturned, can be righted and bailed out. If you can’t right the boat, climb on top and hang on. Wearing your PFD will help protect you from hypothermia in several ways. It decreases the amount of movement necessary to remain afloat and it also helps to insulate you from heat loss. A PFD will also keep you afloat if you become unconscious due to hypothermia.

The “circle of death” occurs when operators let go of the steering wheel or outboard steering handle while the boat is moving. A phenomenon called steering torque forces the motor to slam left causing the boat to swerve sharply to the right, throwing the victim into the water. The boat continues to travel in a circle and returns to strike the victim in the water, inflicting massive propeller wounds. Thus the term “circle of death.” The way to avoid circle of death accidents is to avoid letting go of the steering wheel or handle until the boat ceases all forward motion. If you notice that it takes extra pressure on the steering wheel or handle, have your boat serviced immediately. If the motor is equipped with an automatic kill switch, be sure to fasten the lanyard to your life jacket or some article of clothing such as a belt loop. If you do fall out of your boat, the lanyard, which is attached to the electrical system, disables the motor, keeping the boat from circling back to hit you. Be sure that clamp-on swivel seats are tightly secured and that seat backs are sturdy enough to withstand the shock of a victim being thrown against them.

By following some very basic safety procedures, your boating adventure can be safe and guarantee your safe return to shore. Our recreational deputies will be patrolling our lakes this boating season helping to ensure safe and legal practices.

If you have specific questions that you would like answered in this column or in person, please feel free to contact me anytime using one of the following methods: email at, phone at 218-547-1424 or 800-450-2677 or by mail/in person at Cass County Sheriff’s Office, 303 Minnesota Ave. W. PO Box NO. 1119, Walker, MN 56484