There’s a good reason why National Safe Boating Week occurs just before Memorial Day. Memorial Day is the kickoff holiday for the summer boating season, which means that a good number of boaters on the area’s lakes and rivers won’t have a clue what they’re doing, not to mention how to do it safely.
“They won’t use the boat all year, but they’ll use it during the holiday,” says Lt. John Cawley, who is part of the water rescue unit at the Richmond County Fire Department. “It’ll have year-old gas in it and will be missing plugs. Or worse — people will go to Walmart and buy a $2 inflatable mattress and four girls will get on it and ride the rapids, but the first rock they hit, they’re done.”
The water rescue unit, located at Station One on Broad Street and East Boundary, consists of 12 firefighters. The majority of the time they work off the fire truck just like any other station, but they also have the added duties of water rescue.
“We don’t get any extra money for it, so you need to want to be here or you’re not going to do a good job,” Cawley says. “Eight out of 10 times people ask to come here. They don’t push it down anyone’s throat because a lot of people just don’t like water. It’s not for everyone.”
But it is for Cawley and those firefighters who endure the extra training, and they’re not alone. Area boaters are protected by a number of different agencies. Each has its own role, and together they provide a safety net for those who want to enjoy the river, canal and lake.
Jim McMenamin is a member of the area’s Coast Guard Auxiliary unit, and his story is typical, not just of those who get involved with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, but of many boaters who find themselves in over their heads.
“My wife and I bought a boat, a 23-foot cuddy cabin, and not long after, we realized we didn’t have the skills to operate it,” he says. “We ran into a guy who talked about the Coast Guard Auxiliary, went to a meeting and then joined.”
Now he’s the flotilla commander and his wife, the former flotilla commander, is currently the vice division commander.
The Coast Guard Auxiliary is a uniformed, volunteer arm of the Coast Guard. With an overall membership of around 42,000 people, it’s just slightly smaller than the active component of the Coast Guard itself.
Established by an Act of Congress in 1934, the Coast Guard Auxiliary was tasked with recreational boater safety, which they accomplish through public education, boating safety classes and vessel inspections. They’ll also perform safety patrols, like they did for last month’s Benderdinker paddle event.
“Although there were a lot of people, it would have been virtually impossible and certainly not cost effective to send a couple of Coast Guard members up on a boat,” he says. “So the Coast Guard Auxiliary becomes the Coast Guard and goes out there and does the job for them.”
The job at the Benderdinker, he says, was showing the flag and trying to keep people from getting hurt.
“One of the things you really look out for at something like that, because you have so many paddle boards and kayaks that sit low in the water, is powerboats coming by and flipping them over or running in amongst them,” he says. “So we’ll do perimeters around the area for regattas and the like.”
They are also part of the team that helps during the water portion of the Ironman event.
“We go out and make announcements that the river’s closed to normal boat traffic,” he says. “We’ll be upriver from the event and make sure nobody’s coming down like a bat out of hell that might interfere with the people swimming.”
Currently, McMenamin has four active facility vessels, boats that have gone through a rigorous inspection. Though private boats, they actually operate under military orders when they go out on patrol. They apply to the office in Charleston, which will sign off on the mission.
To take a boat out under orders, the boat must have a crew of at least two, including a coxswain, which is a member with a higher standard of education and proficiency than a certified crew member. Both have to pass written and hands-on tests, ensuring that each boat is safe and appropriately crewed for whatever situation they might encounter, including search and rescue.
Two years ago at the Benderdinker, McMenamin and his crew were approached with news that one of the boats — a father and two children — was two hours late finishing the event. After a brief search, they found the family safe and sound, but the situation emphasized one of the lessons McMenamin stresses when he teaches boating safety classes in schools.
“Besides teaching them what they need to have on the water and teaching them right of way and how to watch the weather, I teach them about having a float plan,” he says. “It’s very important to tell somebody who’s not going on the boat when you’re leaving, where you’re leaving from, where you’re going and what time you should be back.”
He tells the kids that the most important thing they can do with the information he gives them is to give it away, because not everyone who’s on the water is equipped with the knowledge they need to be on the water safely.
And while most people think the skills are transferable, he says driving a boat is a totally different experience.
“The thing about a boat — they don’t have breaks and they don’t stop real quick,” he says. “And if you’re out in real bad weather in your car, you can pull over in a parking lot and wait it out, but if you’re caught out in the middle of the lake and all of a sudden you’re in a storm, you’ve got to do something, and a lot of times people will do it wrong.”
Which brings things back to the inexperienced people that hit the water during the summer holidays. The same people also seem to show up during high water events, which is just about the worst time for even experienced boaters to be on the water.
“When the water goes up, they’re coming out of the woodwork,” Cawley says. “They’re going in the garage and getting that canoe from 30 years ago, and it’s dry rotted and unsafe.”
A lot of times, the people who call for help aren’t even sure where they are.
“Nine times out of 10 they just don’t know,” he says. “They’ll say they’re in the river and they’re in the canal, or they’ll say they’re in the canal and they’re really in the river. So before we leave, we have a handful of questions that we ask the dispatchers to relay to them so we can better judge where they are.”
If they say they see rocks, they’re not in the canal, he says. If it’s narrow, that’s not as clear, since some of the islands in the river can make the channel seem much narrower than it really is.
The team uses a variety of different pieces of equipment, including a 24-foot boat with a hydraulic ramp on the front, a Jet Ski, an inflatable boat and swim boards that they can tow and secure with ropes and pulleys.
They also do a lot of swimming.
According to Special Operations Chief Wayne Taylor, the water rescue team was called out 27 times last year, many of those times during the high water that came later in the year.
“We had some iffy situations when some people, for whatever reason, decided they wanted to get out in the river when there was probably a thousand percent more water coming down,” he says
Two members of the team will soon receive recognition for making a save during those conditions, he says.
During that situation, two men in kayaks were coming down the river. They were inexperienced and one tipped his kayak over. He swam to an island, but as night fell, the Corps of Engineers started releasing more water. The temperature was dropping and there was a very real chance of hyperthermia setting in.
“So a couple of our guys got on the Jet Ski,” Taylor says. “Of course, a Jet Ski doesn’t have headlights, so they had a hand light and they were able to find their way to the island, find the individual and pull him off the island and bring him back.”
One of the team members, however, had to stay on the island while the other one took the boater back.
“With that much water flowing and all the stuff coming downstream with the high water — let’s just say the pucker factor was high,” Taylor says.
While the Coast Guard Auxiliary establishes a perimeter during the Ironman, the water rescue team is out in force, too, as is the dive team, which is made up of volunteers.
The very first year the event was staged, organizers faced a situation where a participant started the swim, then decided he wasn’t feeling good enough to continue and simply swam to the dock, climbed the hill and went home, not thinking about the special electronic sensor he wore that would log his time when he finished the swimming leg.
“So here we are,” Taylor says. “Everyone has finished the water section except for this guy. We knew exactly who he was and where he lived, but we didn’t have him on the water.”
Eventually, officials dispatched a Sheriff’s deputy to his apartment, where they found him taking a nap.
Most of the situations the water rescue team encounters involve simple inexperience, though Cawley says they get a couple of jumpers every year as well as several false alarms — people mistaking a fisherman on the rocks for someone in trouble or an empty kayak floating downriver where the dumped owner was able to safely make it to shore and simply went home, unaware the empty kayak was drawing nervous attention downstream.
Operating on either the lake or the river, McMenamin tries to use his presence — Coast Guard Auxiliary boats are marked, manned with people in uniform and allowed to use flashing lights and sirens — as a deterrent to unsafe boating practices. And he uses his vessel inspections as a way to help novice or uninformed boaters understand what is required to safely operate on the water.
“If you meet the standards, we’ll give you a sticker that shows it,” he says. “If you don’t, there’s no penalty, we’ll just say, ‘Hey — you’re missing a fire extinguisher or whatever.’ Then, when you have what you need, you can call us up and we’ll do it again.”
In 2011, there were 17 boating fatalities in Georgia. Nationwide, the Coast Guard counted over 4,500 recreational boating accidents in 2011 that resulted in 651 deaths and over $38 million in damaged property. In almost 71 percent of fatal boating accidents, the victims drowned, and of those, 85 percent were not wearing a floatation device. One hundred and nine of the deaths were attributed to alcohol use.
“When we come across an impaired boater, we try to find somebody else on the boat to operate it,” he says. “If we have enough people on our boat, we’d suggest that one of our guys drive it back to the dock or we’d just call DNR or the Sheriff.”
McMenamin, who retired after 35 years as a police officer and hostage negotiator, says the auxiliary is made up of people from all walks of life. At national training a couple of years ago, he saw flag officers from the military, active duty police officers and people who were just interested in helping the community, whether or not they owned a boat.
“Probably half our people don’t even go out on a boat,” he says. “We need finance people, web people — anything at all. We’re always recruiting because the more people we have the more things we can do and the more effective we can be.”