Coast Guard Stresses Safety In Wake of Boating Death
Written by WSBT 2 - South Bend   
Monday, 07 May 2007 02:08

Witnesses say three men involved in a boating accident on Lake Michigan Sunday in which one of them died were not wearing life jackets. The U.S. Coast Guard says the accident can teach boaters a tough, but important lesson.

Officers say there were life jackets on board the boat, but no one was wearing one. That's not required. But both the Coast Guard and many local boaters say it's a good idea in high winds, because if you fall under the 45 degree water, hypothermia can set in in under 10 minutes. Plus, survivors can lose the ability to stay afloat.

Captain Robert Presson can describe Sunday's Conditions on Lake Michigan for his 36-foot charter boat very simply:

"Very Unsafe," he said.

Winds from the east at 30 knots created three to five foot wave swells and sailing through them can be very challenging.

"With the east wind it gets up under it and it makes it like a vacuum," said Presson. "It's real hard to control."

Thirty-year-veteran fisherman Tom Peterson knows that all too well. He was out in the swells on Sunday.

"Just a six-inch chop [near the shore] and the farther out you got, the rougher it got," he said.

"It looks really good," added his brother Dave Peterson, "but somebody that was a novice could make a mistake and, conceivably go out too far. And once you got out there, [you're] trying to get back, you're going against the waves and it could be an issue."

Still, many accidents can be avoided by taking some simple safety steps--steps the Coast Guard says many people ignore.

"People don't think lifejackets are comfortable, so they don't wear them," says U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Corey Sheets. "Wind and the waves out there can be very dangerous at times. For precautions you have to know what the weather is and know what your limitations are. And if you're aware of that, put your life jacket on."

Officer Sheets says it can be tough when that advice is ignored:

"It always takes a toll," he says. "Death on anybody takes a toll."

And Sunday, that toll got a little worse. Just two hours after pulling a dead body from the lake, officers were called to save another fisherman. Dennis Heae was onboard a sailboat about eight miles west of St. Joseph. He sliced off his finger in rigging when his sailboat was slammed by a wave.

For veteran boaters like the Petersons and Presson, it's a clear example that clear thinking and prevention can save lives.

"If they're saying it's unsafe, best bet it is unsafe," says Presson. "It's not worth the chance."

The capsized boat was still floating adrift about three miles offshore from the beach Sunday night. A private contractor is expected to right it and tow it to shore Monday, so the Coast Guard can learn more about what caused it to capsize.
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