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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2005

State wants sailors to chart course toward water safety

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
In a scene repeated across Ohio this weekend, Michael Taylor, left, of Taylor Marine Inc. in Vermilion, Ohio, and Bryce Custer of Canton, Ohio, prepare Mr. Custer's boat for the season. In a scene repeated across Ohio this weekend, Michael Taylor, left, of Taylor Marine Inc. in Vermilion, Ohio, and Bryce Custer of Canton, Ohio, prepare Mr. Custer's boat for the season.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Dressed in overalls and with streaks of paint on his face, Sean Wernert looked over the 65-foot canal boat, taking note of areas in need of a touch up.

There was still a bit of a chill in the April air, but the sun beat down, Lake Erie was calm, and Mr. Wernert couldn't help but look forward to May 1 and another season ferrying passengers up and down the Maumee River aboard the Sandipiper.

One of the captains of the 100-seat boat, Mr. Wernert is among thousands statewide gearing up for the start of boating season. Warm temperatures around the 70-degree mark yesterday and forecast again today will likely accelerate the number of people working on their boats and may send more of them onto the water.

Although the boating season traditionally kicks off April 1, most boaters usually won't find their way to Lake Erie or the other Great Lakes until mid-May.

There are nearly 415,000 registered boats in Ohio, and 300,000 in Michigan. Most belong to pleasure boaters who usually head for the water on the weekends or after work, not to people like Mr. Wernert, employed working on the water.

"Somebody has to have a fun job," the 25-year-old Toledo man said with a smile. "It's something I've been doing for so long and I just love it. If you can make a living at it, why not?"

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources' watercraft division estimates that about 3 million Ohioans go boating each year. That means the lakes and rivers will be peppered with boats throughout the season.

ODNR has spent its winter at boat shows reminding boaters to be safe while on the water. The watercraft division emphasizes what should be second-nature for boaters - wearing life jackets.

But there are other things to keep in mind when enjoying the wind and the waves, said Greg Hartland, Division 11 captain of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The auxiliary educates people about both the obvious and subtle dangers of boating.

Boaters must be cognizant of the potential for hypothermia and shock if they enter the cold waters in the spring and fall. They may encounter a lowhead dam, often found on Ohio's rivers, and become ensnared in swirling eddies.

A boater starting up a motor may also suddenly feel the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. Comparing it to standing behind an idling car, Mr. Hartland said carbon monoxide building up under a boat's swim platform has led to a few deaths in the country already.

"You're out. It's a gorgeous day. You're not thinking about carbon monoxide," he said. "You can pass out or even die from it."

These sorts of safety issues, as well as the rules of boating, are taught in a boater education course now required for those born after Jan. 1, 1982, who plan to operate a boat in Ohio. According to the Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety, a boat operator is responsible for ensuring that the boat is in top operating condition, all safety equipment is on board, and navigation rules and waterway markers are obeyed, among other things.

Education, more enforcement, and advances in equipment have made recreational boating one of the safest outdoor sports there is, said John Wisse of ONDR's Division of Watercraft.

In 2004, seven people died and 59 people were injured in boating accidents in Ohio. Those numbers were down considerably from previous years, such as the 25 killed and 82 injured in 2000. Most heartening for the Coast Guard, ODNR, and other water-safety officials is that the number of boating accidents has declined even as boating registrations continue to skyrocket.

But people shouldn't be overconfident when they ride the waves, Mr. Wisse said. Boaters must still be conscious of things such as whether a boat is overweight or improperly balanced and avoiding drinking and boating.

"We stress the enjoyment factor, but you must do so responsibly," Mr. Wisse said. "A boat operator has to take an extra measure of safety awareness in terms of the passengers on his or her boat. It's ultimately the operator's responsibility for the safety of the passengers."

That's why the division has been conducting surveys of boat operators' knowledge to see where more emphasis is needed. The surveys, handed out at boat shows over the winter, have been conducted every three years since 1999, when the average knowledge score was 35.6 percent. Results from this year's survey won't be known until later this year, but officials hope to exceed the improvement achieved with the 38 percent average score in 2002.

Co-owners Bryce Custer and Kym Hall of Canton, Ohio, were on their newly purchased sailboat at the Toledo Beach Marina in LaSalle, Mich., last week, cleaning the vessel for a planned trip Tuesday to Sandusky. Ms. Hall cleaned the rooms below deck while Mr. Custer learned how to tuck away the boat's 60-foot sail. Snickers, their miniature schnauzer, walked silently on deck.

The two said the peacefulness of the water lures them off land every summer. This year is the first time since they began boating five years ago that they will be spending their time on Lake Erie as opposed to one of Ohio's inland lakes.

"It's the freedom of being on a sailboat and not having to worry about power that brings you in," explained Mr. Custer, 41, who works in commercial real estate.

"You just let the wind take you to where you need to go."

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.



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