Severe weather and busy weekend for mid-Atlantic Coast Guard units put focus on boating, swimming safety

Mid Atlantic Coast Guard NewsPORTSMOUTH, Va. – The Coast Guard urges boaters and swimmers to be mindful of potentially severe weather as they prepare for the Fourth of July.

Dangerous weather last weekend contributed to a high number of search and rescue cases throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

Coast Guard units from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina responded to more than 50 cases Friday through Sunday with assistance from partnering agencies. These included capsized boats, vessels beset by severe weather, boats that took on water, disabled vessels and swimmers in distress. Though the circumstances leading to these accidents vary, they all underscore two important lessons about enjoying time on or near the water: Always take the necessary safety precautions and exercise vigilance during the summer holidays and when weather is prone to change suddenly.

“We want everyone to have a safe and enjoyable holiday on the water,” said Lt. Jack Smith, Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads’ chief of incident management.  “But boaters need to keep an eye on the weather, not only for when and where they leave the dock, but also for the rest of the day. Thunderstorms and severe winds can quickly develop during summer afternoons and pose a threat to even large vessels.”

In an effort to reduce the number of incidents on the water and to increase the safety of boaters and swimmers, the Coast Guard recommends the following:

  • Wearing a life jacket. According to Coast Guard statistics, drownings were the cause of 70 percent of all boating fatalities in 2011. Of those victims, 84 percent were not wearing life jackets. The successful rescue of nine people on Sunday near Barnegat Light Inlet, N.J., illustrates there may be little time to put on a life jacket after an accident, so wearing one at all times is important.
  • Outfitting boats with a functioning marine band radio. Cell phones are typically an unreliable source of communication due to gaps in coverage and limited battery life. Using VHF-FM Channel 16 on a marine band radio is the most reliable way to communicate a distress call to search and rescue personnel in the event of an emergency while on the water.
  • Making sure a friend or relative knows your float plan. A float plan states where a boater is going and how many people are aboard the vessel, gives a complete vessel description and details a destination and estimated time of return. Float plans aid rescuers in identifying a search area in the event of an emergency.

Another aspect of boating safety is not operating a vessel under the influence. Alcohol use was the leading factor in fatal boating accidents in 2011. Boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs is just as deadly as drinking and driving and is illegal in every state. There are penalties for violating these laws, which can include large fines, suspension or revocation of boat operator privileges, and jail terms.

“Boating safety can be greatly improved by following two basic principles: wear your life jacket and don’t drink and boat,” said Smith.  “If you follow these guidelines, you will help to ensure a safe and enjoyable holiday for yourself and others on the water.”

Swimmers should also exercise caution. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, rip currents annually account for more than 100 drownings. Be aware of the dangers of swimming in tidal and ocean waters, especially if unfamiliar with them. Learn the signs of rip currents and know how to escape them. Stay calm, and rather than swim against the rip current, swim parallel to the shore and back in to safety.

More information and a complete list of boating safety guidelines can be found at the following websites:

U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

Vessel Safety Checks

Coast Guard Boating Safety

National Safe Boating Council

U.S. Power Squadrons

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