Water safety vital to boaters
Written by Chicago Tribune   
Thursday, 19 May 2005 12:07
The lazy way out could be a mistake. This is spring training for boaters, and the same way baseball players tune up their batting strokes and pitching arms, boat owners must tune up their boats before launching their season.

As spring turns to summer and hordes of vessels take to Lake Michigan and other Illinois bodies of water, captains must cope with the nitty-gritty of preparation.

Before they have fun, they must clean, scrub, check motors, change oil and do all kinds of things they usually pay mechanics at the garage to do while rehabbing their cars.

And there is no better time than right now to complete the checklist as National Safe Boating Week approaches Saturday. Low batting averages and high earned-run averages may not be at stake, but survival could be.

"Check for flaws," said Capt. Greg Hunter, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources expert on boating safety. "Poor parts can be a problem."

In 17 years on duty, Hunter has experienced everything, including the grim task of body recoveries. Sometimes boaters are cheapskates and use inappropriate automobile parts as replacement parts for their boats.

Hunter recalls "a horror story" from about eight years ago on the Mississippi River when the owner of a 32-foot wooden craft used an automotive air filter and moved a remodeled gas tank to another spot on his boat. "A hundred yards from the slip, it exploded," Hunter said, and a woman was killed.

Boating organizations are urging the 17 million owners nationwide to take precautions before they rev up the engines.

Among procedures recommended by the Boat Owners Association of the United States:

Inspect props for dings and distortion; check to make sure the rudderstock has not bent; inspect and lubricate seacocks, including hoses and hose clamps; use a hose to check for deck leaks at ports and hatches; make sure the stern drain plug is installed; check the engine shaft and rudder stuffing boxes for looseness, then make sure after launching there are no leaks.

In addition, Boat U.S. recommends owners check power steering and power trim oil levels; inspect fuel lines and vent hoses for cracking; check all joints for leaks and outer jackets of control cables.

Owners should examine fuel tanks, pumps and filters and all clamps and hoses for corrosion and rust.

West Marine, a massive California-based boating supply company, has published "Your Guide to Spring Boat Prep" in pamphlet form. It is distributed in boating stores.

"Don't underestimate the damage winter weather and storage can cause to boats," company official Chuck Hawley noted in a statement.

Among the suggestions: Start the engine; pump the bilge; check navigation lights; check for flares and their expiration dates. Also, protect the boat with appropriate bottom paint.

The consortium of boating organizations behind the 2005 North American Safe Boating Campaign includes the National Safe Boating Council, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Their theme is: "Boat Smart. Boat Safe. Wear It." That thrusts the focus on the wearing of life jackets, the simplest safety precaution of all.

Last year Illinois had 78 reportable accidents, according to Hunter. Reportable accidents are those with at least $2,000 in damages, major injuries or a fatality.

He said there were 45 major injuries and 18 fatalities.

Worse, about 90 percent of the deaths might have been prevented had the boaters been wearing life jackets that probably were only a few feet away on the boat.

"Of the 18 fatalities," Hunter said, "possibly 15 could have survived if they [had] worn a personal flotation device."
These deaths occur during collisions in which people are thrown overboard, from fires onboard, from mechanical breakdowns in which someone falls into the water while attempting repairs, from people falling overboard when boats go too fast or when boaters have had too much alcohol.

In many instances, the incidents come under the headings of carelessness and recklessness, as Hunter calls them.

The law requires life jackets on boats and in easily accessible places, but those on personal watercraft--jet skis--must wear them at all times.

"Folks have the PFDs on board for the most part," Hunter said, "but they are very unfamiliar with how to use them."

As someone who has investigated the aftermath of many grisly accidents, Hunter said he only wishes that if people are not going to wear their life jackets at all times, they would at least don them at the first hint of trouble.

"It's my recommendation to wear them at all times, especially in open-bow pleasure crafts," Hunter said. "A person always is subject to a fall."

Hunter and the boating organizations are not trying to play Scrooge. They just want pleasure boaters to live to tell about it.

 
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