Over Memorial Day weekend, officers from Coast Guard Station Atlantic City logged 45 hours on the water and performed more than 50 safety checks on recreational vessels.
Promoting safety on the water is a large part of their job each summer beyond emergency response — a detachment was also on the scene of a dumptruck that careened from the Garden State Parkway into the Great Egg Harbor Bay — and routine training.
“It’s pretty busy every weekend because people want to get on the water,” said Petty Officer Cindy Oldham.
New Jersey saw accidents and fatalities increase last year despite substantial decreases in boating accidents nationwide. While the numbers are relatively small, they came even after Hurricane Sandy destroyed scores of recreational boats and a sluggish economy caused many more to be dry docked.
Pinpointing a single reason for the increase is impossible, but authorities and boating enthusiasts say the impact of Hurricane Sandy on local waterways is being felt even now, two years after the storm.
“I was out on the boat yesterday and there were places we shouldn’t have run aground that we did,” said Chuck Stuchel, general manager at West Marine in Somers Point. “The bottom has changed so much because of shoaling.”
But the perennial dangers haven’t changed:
Alcohol has historically contributed to many fatalities — 16 percent nationwide last year and 3 of 8 statewide in 2011, for example — and hasn’t been ruled as a factor in any of New Jersey’s eight deaths last year, according to Coast Guard data. Other leading factors across the state and nationwide include operator inattention or inexperience, excessive speed and navigational rules violations.
“You designate a sober skipper just as you designate a sober driver on the road,” said Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Louis Aversano.
Officers regularly board vessels for safety checks and keep a look out for boats that are steering erratically, creating wakes in no-wake zones or contain young children not wearing lifejackets.
“A cop has to have probably cause to board you,” Aversano said. “The Coast Guard, we’re federal, so we can board any vessel no matter what it’s doing.”
Aversano has developed a keen eye for reckless boaters over the course of nearly seven years with the Coast Guard. In addition to the obvious signs, he also looks for navigational lights turned off at dusk or sailors leaning over the side of the boat.
If a captain is suspected of being intoxicated, the officers have their own procedures similar but also different from police.
“For a boat, it’s a little different,” he said. “You don’t want someone walking a straight line on a boat.”
In this case, individuals are asked to perform a field sobriety test — including tasks such as hand-clapping or finger snapping — the specifics of which Aversano said the Coast Guard prefers not to divulge. If he or she fails that test, the boater will be brought to shore for further testing.
Petty Officer 1st Class Nick Ameen said most boaters know the basics, but may slip up in practice.
“Yes, you have to have a life jacket on board for every single passenger, but they need to be within reaching distance,” he said.
Given how quickly an emergency can unfold, however, it’s recommended sailors wear one at all times.
“Trying to put on a life jacket in an emergency is like trying to put on a seat belt in the middle of a car crash,” he said.
Flares and other equipment should be regularly checked for expiration dates. And it helps to have a variety of safety equipment at your disposal, Ameen said. In one recent case, several people were rescued from the water when their signaling mirror was seen from the air.
While most navigation charts have been updated since Sandy and the Coast Guard is proactive about replacing buoys, boaters should always be aware of their surroundings.
Stuchel said they need to keep in mind that many channels — particularly in the back bays — have become narrower. The changes caused by the hurricane simply mean boaters need to pay close attention to navigational tools, he said.
“Local knowledge plays a big part of it: knowing the waters where you’re boating,” he said. “You need to rely on your depth finder to look at depth changes before you run aground.”
Cathy Leeds, 57, of the Belleplain section of Dennis Township, said a lot of boating safety comes down to common sense.
She and her husband traverse the back bays in the Little Atocha, ironically named for the Spanish ship of gold that sank off the coast of Florida. They sometimes encounter speeders or erratic boaters, she said.
“If you don’t go around like a maniac, you generally won’t have a problem,” Leeds said. “And, of course, always be prepared.”
Aversano said some boaters were so eager to get back on the water after Sandy that they neglected the basics.
“Now that everyone’s fixed, everyone’s going to start coming out,” he said. “They’re so eager, it’s like tunnel vision.”
It’s important to take the time and go through a safety checklist, Aversano said. Barring that, the officers will be on the lookout for people’s safety.
“Our goal is to not have any accidents,” he said.
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