Marine patrols beefing up for holiday weekend on South Mississippi waterways

Boaters expected to flock to waterways

rfitzgerald@sunherald.comJuly 1, 2014 

BILOXI -- Boaters know there's nothing like the rush of the wind and the smell of sea spray or brackish water on a hot summer day as the sun presses down over a stretch of glistening water. But in an instant, the pleasure can turn to tragedy.

Tragedy is what marine patrol officers hope to avoid this weekend, when hundreds of boaters are expected to celebrate the Independence Day weekend along bayous, rivers, lakes and barrier islands.

Fourteen people died in boating accidents statewide in 2013, including at least six deaths on coastal waterways. It was the most boating fatalities in the state since 2009, when accidents claimed 18 lives.

The state Department of Marine Resources beefed up its marine patrol ranks last weekend to remind boaters of the need to drive cautiously, defensively and sober.

Marine patrol officers expect heavy boat traffic this weekend. They also are concerned that boozing or negligent boaters can endanger everyone in their path.

"It's a recipe for danger," DMR Lt. Patrick Levine said.

"We're asking that boaters drive cautiously and don't drink alcohol," he said.

U.S. Coast Guard statistics from 2013 show why they're concerned. The leading causes of boating deaths and injuries last year were operator inattention or inexperience, improper lookout, speeding and alcohol.

Boaters who drink on land tend to forget the effects of alcohol are intensified on the water, Levine said. The sun, wind, heat and motion also can intensify alcohol's effects, he said.

Being on the water also can lead to dehydration. Those who plan to go boating should start drinking plenty of water the day before, he said.

Marine patrol officers are urging all boaters to make a safety check before they step on deck, and to make sure they have a life jacket for every passenger.

The officers checked 185 boats and 626 people last weekend in a safety campaign dubbed Operation Dry Water. They issued 24 citations, and arrested one man on a charge of boating under the influence. They also responded to a capsized boat south of Pass Christian.

On Sunday, dozens of sun-seekers lined the beach at Grasshopper Island near the juncture of the Biloxi and Tchoutacabouffa rivers. Water lapped up on the beach as boaters listed to music and lounged around.

Nearby, DMR Sgt. Leo DeGeorge stopped a boat whose driver appeared to be impaired. DeGeorge put the man in his patrol boat and gave him a seated field-sobriety test as the man's friends looked on. After a series of questions and tests, the man did not appear to be too drunk to arrest. A friend was allowed to drive the boat away.

"We look for clues," DeGeorge said. "If he had failed, we would have taken him in for a blood-alcohol test."

Officers expect boat traffic around Grasshopper Island will be even heavier over the holiday weekend.

The most common cause of fatal accidents nationwide last year was collisions between recreational boats, Coast Guard data shows. Collision with a fixed object, such as a pier, was the second most-common.

Skiing and tubing accidents appear to be a growing problem among children and teenagers in South Mississippi.

In May, a 9-year-old boy died in a tubing accident on the Wolf River in Harrison County. Last year, two teens died in a skiing accident on the Pascagoula River, and a 15-year-old died in a tubing accident at Gulfport Lake. A 10-year-old girl died in a tubing accident on the Jourdan River in 2009.

Levine said congested boat traffic and twists and turns in narrow channels and rivers' bends are especially treacherous areas when a boat is pulling a skier or a personal watercraft is pulling someone on a tube.

Turns can cause skis or tubes to accelerate and the rider suddenly loses control, he said.

"We want people to get on the water and have a good time," Levine said. "But we want them to do everything they can for their own safety and the safety of others."

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