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When boating, safety is first

A couple prepared their boat for a day on the lake after launching recently from1 / 2
This photo released July 23 by the Chippewa County (Wis.) Sheriff’s Department s2 / 2

Often, it’s the little things boaters never think of. 

Keeping people from sitting on the bow or gunwales, having a throwable floatation device at the ready, anchoring a boat before jumping in the lake for a swim. 

Sometimes, it’s the major things — not driving while impaired, making sure everyone is wearing their life jackets, not speeding after dark. 

Minor or major, they all come down to one word — safety.

Recent boat deaths — two drowned on Cass Lake and a two-boat collision in Wisconsin that killed four people — have officials stressing the need for boat safety and good judgment on the water. 

“Maybe even before you step on the boat, the most important thing of all is you have to make decision if you are capable of operating the boat safely at that point and time,” said Tim Smalley, DNR water safety specialist. “And that doesn’t mean just alcohol.”

Weather conditions, time of day, driving in a manner in which boaters can distinguish other boats’ lights from lights on shore were the other examples Smalley provided. 

Night time, Smalley said, is when most boat collisions happen. 

“At night, especially, you have to be confident in operating a boat safely and especially when you have others on the boat,” he said. 

Alcohol just makes things worse for boaters, Smalley said, regardless of what time of day they are on the lake. Though having a beer or drink on the boat is legal so long as the driver isn’t impaired — which is .08 in Minnesota,Smalley advises motorists to treat alcohol consumption on a boat as they would with a vehicle. If you can’t drive a car you shouldn’t be driving a boat. 

For Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch, the key is lifejackets — having them and using them at all times. Smalley noted state law dictates anyone under the age of 10 must have a lifejacket on and anyone using a personal watercraft, such as a jet-ski, must be using a life jacket.

“No matter how good a swimmer you are, it just makes sense,” Burch said. “We can’t tell people enough to wear their life jackets. And to use common sense.”

That common sense, he said, included not being distracted while driving and making sure people aren’t sitting on the sides or rails in a boat and driving cautiously. Like Smalley, Burch advised against drinking and driving a boat. 

“Don’t add any more contributing factors that could make it worse for you,” Burch said. “If you use a designated driver in a car use one in a boat.”

Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Goddard advised boaters to brush up on state boating laws and obey the laws, especially those pertaining to personal watercraft. 

Goddard noted there have been no water or boating related deaths in the county in 2011. Usually there have been a few such fatalities by the end of July, and Goddard attributed this year’s lack to people doing a better job at being safe.

However, there have been a few accidents in Crow Wing County that have resulted in injuries. 

“If they had slowed down, taken a little more time, used common sense and obeyed the laws some of them might not have taken place,” Goddard said.

MATT ERICKSON may be reached at or 855-5857.