Great Lakes Coast Guard shares safety tips for Labor Day Weekend boating

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CLEVELAND — The Coast Guard is urging those who plan to recreate on the Great Lakes during Labor Day weekend, or at any other time, to take appropriate safety precautions.

Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of the traditional beach and boating seasons on the Great Lakes, and is usually one of the busiest for the Coast Guard.

Throughout the summer, the Coast Guard’s 9th District conducted search-and-rescue cases on Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior and other navigable waterways within the Great Lakes region, like the St. Marys River, which highlighted the importance of proper preparation and boaters looking out for one another.

“The traditional boating season is coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean people should let their guard down – there is still time to find yourself in distress and in need of help,” said Mike Baron, the Coast Guard 9th District Recreational Boating and Water Safety Program manager. “Most accidents on the water are unexpected and happen fast. Taking the time to practice personal safety is the key to ensuring a great weekend on the lake doesn’t turn tragic.”

“Whatever the activity, keep an eye on the weather and water conditions,” Baron said. “Wear your life jacket and avoid using alcohol when boating. Alcohol plays a major role in boating accidents and fatalities.”

The Coast Guard encourages swimmers and boaters to always check the current and forecasted marine weather before heading to the water. Even on seemingly nice days, waves and underwater currents may be more than the average swimmer or boater can handle. Marine forecasts can be found on the National Weather Service’s website.

The following are additional safety tips for all boaters:

  • Have a marine band radio and visual distress signals — While many boaters rely on cell phones for emergency communications on the water, VHF-FM radios are much more reliable in the marine environment and work in areas where cell phones sometimes won’t.  When a mayday is broadcast over channel FM Channel 16, the international hailing and distress frequency, multiple response agencies, and other nearby boaters can hear the distress call and offer immediate assistance.  Additionally, in accordance with federal law, recreational boats 16 feet and longer are required to carry visual distress signals such as flares, smoke signals or non-pyrotechnic devices, and vessels 12 meters or longer are required to carry sound-producing devices such as whistles, bells and gongs. State and local laws may require further safety equipment.
  • Have a registered 406MHz emergency position indicating radio beacon — When a 406MHz EPIRB signal is received, search-and-rescue personnel can retrieve information from a registration database. This includes the beacon owner’s contact information, emergency contact information, and vessel/aircraft identifying characteristics. Having this information allows the Coast Guard, or other rescue personnel, to respond appropriately.
  • Have a personal locator beacon — A PLB is a compact device that is clipped to a boater, normally on the life jacket he or she is wearing.  Once activated in a distress situation, the PLB transmits a 406 MHz signal to the International Cospas-Sarsat Satellite System, which provides distress alert and location data for search and rescue operations around the world.

                                         Beach Safety

Drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death in the United States and the second leading cause of accidental death for swimmers aged 5 to 44.  The Coast Guard recommends the following tips for swimmers:

  • Swim near a lifeguard — U.S. Lifesaving Association statistics during a 10-year period show that the chance of drowning at a beach without lifeguard protection is almost five times as great as drowning at a beach with lifeguards.
  • Never swim alone — Many drownings involve single swimmers. Learn water rescue techniques you can use if someone you are swimming with is in danger.
  • Don’t fight the current — If caught in a rip current, don’t fight it by trying to swim directly to shore. Instead, swim parallel to shore until you feel the current relax, then swim to shore. Most rip currents are narrow and a short swim parallel to shore will bring a swimmer to safety.
  • Swim sober — Alcohol is a major factor in drowning. Alcohol can reduce body temperature and impair swimming ability. Both alcohol and drugs impair good judgment, which may cause people to take risks they would not otherwise take.
  • Don’t float where you can’t swim — Non-swimmers and weak swimmers often use flotation devices, such as inflatable rafts, to go offshore. If they fall off, they can quickly drown. No one should use a flotation device unless they are able to swim. The only exception is a person wearing an inherently buoyant Coast Guard approved Type I, II or III personal flotation device, or life jacket.
  • Prepare for the unexpected — Wear a life jacket while participating in any activity during which you could unexpectedly enter the water, such as when fishing from breakwalls or piers.
  • Avoid unnecessary risks — Walking along breakwalls is risky because it only takes a momentary loss of footing to invite tragedy. Jumping from break walls, waterside structures or into unfamiliar water is extremely dangerous since unseen underwater hazards may exist.

According to United States Lifesaving Association statistics, 80 percent of beach rescues are necessary due to rip currents, and more than 100 people die annually from drowning in rip currents.  The following are tips on identifying, avoiding and escaping rip currents:

  • Identify — Look for changes in water color; water motion; incoming wave shape or breaking point compared to adjacent conditions; channels of churning or choppy water; lines of foam, seaweed or debris moving seaward.
  • Avoid — Check the latest National Weather Service forecast for local beach conditions before heading out; learn to swim; never swim alone; swim near a lifeguard; look for posted signs and warning flags indicating hazards; check with lifeguards before swimming and obey their instructions; always assume rip currents are present; if in doubt, don’t go out.
  • Escape — Remain calm to conserve energy; don’t fight the current; swim across the current parallel to the shoreline; when out of the current, swim an angle away from the current and toward shore; if you can’t escape, try to float or tread water until the current subsides then swim to shore; if you can’t reach shore, face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help to draw attention.
  • Assist — Get help from a lifeguard or, if one isn’t available, call 911; throw the victim something that floats — a life jacket, cooler, ball; yell instructions to escape; don’t become a victim trying to help someone else.

Finally, the Coast Guard reminds mariners that water temperatures will start to descend rapidly with the change in seasons. Hypothermia is a risk regardless of water temperature, but cooler waters accelerate its onset.

A person in cold water without proper protective clothing will lose functional movement in fingers, arms and legs within minutes. At this point, a victim who is not wearing a life jacket will likely drown because he or she can no longer tread water and remain afloat.

Even with a Coast Guard-approved life jacket, hypothermia is a threat to survival once someone is exposed to cold water. The body may lose heat 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. When recreating outdoors, mariners should dress for the water temperature — not the air temperature.

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