Operation Sail Safe saves lives

Coast Guard Sector New York LogoNEW YORK, NY – In 2008, someone died.

In 2009, someone else died.

In 2010, someone lived.

For the recreational boating community on the upper Hudson, this is not just good news but the result of good practices.

In 2008 and 2009, a recreational boater was killed in an accident on the upper Hudson River.

In 2010, there were no fatalities among recreational boaters on the upper Hudson.

Something worked.

“People are boating more safely and the stats say so,” said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Dave Ruhlig, project officer for Operation Sail Safe, the concerted effort by the Coast Guard and cooperating agencies in New York to make recreational boating safer.

Launched in May, Sail Safe was a sustained, multi-agency operation with the ultimate goal saving lives. The principal means of enforcement was boardings of recreational vessels by legally empowered teams from the Coast Guard, as well as state and local law enforcement agencies.

“Many boaters see these boardings as anything from an unpleasant interruption of their day to heavy-handed harassment by the Coast Guard and law enforcement,” said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Batchelder, head of the law enforcement branch of Coast Guard Sector New York, the command charged with maritime safety and security on the upper Hudson. “They are anything but — we’re out there to prevent tragedy.”

Batchelder believes that no fatalities this year is no accident. He sees it as the direct result of sustained and focused law enforcement and of recreational boaters understanding the message.

“For the last few years, we have targeted the upper Hudson with a focused campaign of enforcement of safe boating laws,” says Batchelder. “Those efforts have paid off. I see definite indications of greater public awareness and compliance with regulations.”

The numbers seem to bear him out. Besides the life that was not lost, fewer owners had their voyages terminated because of unsafe conditions, such as structurally unsound or grossly overloaded boats. In 2009 there were 37 vessel terminations, but only 12 in 2010.

Lesser violations – those that require correction but do not necessitate voyage termination – are also on the wane. In 2009, 263 violation notices were issued; in 2010, only 75.

These improvements are welcome but not an excuse for complacency. In 2009, 4,730 accidents were recorded by the Coast Guard nationwide, causing 736 deaths, more than 3,300 injuries and about $36 million in property damage. These accidents and deaths point to a combination of factors: operator inattention and inexperience, excessive speed, improper lookout and alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption was the leading factor in 16 percent of deaths. In addition, 86 percent of boat operators involved in fatal accidents had not received boat safety instruction. Nearly 75 percent of the 736 people who died in boating accidents in 2009 drowned, and 84 percent of those victims reportedly were not wearing a life jacket.

In the upper Hudson, the 2008 death occurred near Garrison, N.Y., after a motorboat capsized and a 25-year-old man drowned; he was not wearing a life jacket. The 2009 death occurred near Northumberland, N.Y., when a motorboat capsized and a 26-year-old man drowned; he also was not wearing a life jacket.

The conclusion is that more lives would be saved if operators did not drink and boat, if every person on a recreational vessel wore a life jacket and if every operator took a safety course, such as those offered yearly by the Coast Guard Auxiliary. But, until that happens, the Coast Guard and its law enforcement partners have a job on their hands.

“When it comes to protecting our communities, to saving lives on the water and preventing injuries, it is imperative that we maintain our continued vigilance,” said Batchelder.

This vigilance is far from being the sole province of the Coast Guard, though it is the lead agency for safety and security on America’s navigable waterways. The 42,000 members of the Coast Guard are spread across the United States and overseas with commitments in the Pacific, the Atlantic, Europe, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean and ashore in Afghanistan. When natural disasters strike or man-made catastrophes such as the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occur, the Coast Guard must respond. This means pulling resources from units across the country, and a thin blue line becomes even thinner. Without the partnership of state and local agencies, the job of recreational boating safety would be immensely more difficult.

“Each of our partners played a crucial role in protecting the safety and security of our citizens and our ports through their participation in Operation Sail Safe,” said Batchelder. “We all worked hard this year in the face of bad weather, budget restrictions and the numerous other jobs we are all asked to do.”

The focus of Operation Sail Safe was on recreational boating safety, and ran parallel to Operation Small Fry. That operation was primarily a security initiative focused on detecting, deterring and interdicting illicit activity by operators of small vessels of 300 gross tons or less whose voyages began in international waters. In the course of Small Fry, Coast Guard and law enforcement teams boarded foreign flagged vessels that had sailed from Canadian waters through the Troy Locks and into the Hudson River. In at least one case these boardings paid off, when the crew of a pleasure boat was detained for illegal firearms possession.

“We obtained greater awareness of international transit on the Hudson and its potential as a route for those with hostile intent,” said the Coast Guard’s Ruhlig.

“Operation Small Fry is another example of the collaborative and successful partnership among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, designed to bolster our counter terrorism efforts on New York State waterways and raise our citizens’ situational awareness. We look forward to continuing these efforts with the U.S. Coast Guard and our other partners to increase our readiness and we remind the public that if they see suspicious activity to contact local law enforcement. If you see something, say something,” said James M. Sherry, Executive Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services/Director, Office of Counter Terrorism.

Joining the Coast Guard in enforcement of Operations Sail Safe and Small Fry this year were:

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services
  • York State Intelligence Center
  • New York State Police
  • New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
  • New York State Naval Militia
  • Westchester County Police Department
  • Rockland County Sheriff
  • Dutchess County Sheriff
  • Putnam County Sheriff
  • Orange County Sheriff
  • Ulster County Sheriff
  • Rennsalear County Sheriff

With the holiday season at hand, there is always much to be thankful for. But, somewhere on the upper Hudson is a family that is even more blessed than it knows. A member of that family is a recreational boater.

In 2008, a family member died.

In 2009, a family member died.

In 2010, a family member lived.

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