The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Seward flotilla calls for boating safety



PFD Otter is ever vigilant to the presence of a youngster without a life jacket. Loaner life preservers are located at prominent stations throughout Alaska, including Seward's small boat harbor.

With rise in boating accident deaths last year in Alaska, Sue Lang, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary’s flotilla vice commander in Seward had a wealth of practical advice for recreational boaters during a boating safety address she gave to local business leaders at the Seward Chamber of Commerce luncheon prior to the busy harbor weekend opening. National Safe Boating Week, which she also chairs, took place May 18 to 24. It also marked Seward Boat Harbor Opening weekend, and the week before the busy Memorial Day weekend.

Her safety message comes as the Coast Guard nationwide experiences cutbacks in federal funding for patrols, and in the wake of a marked increase in recreational boating accidents in Alaska last year.

Some 459 recreational boaters died in accidents on U.S. waters in 2012, and 22 of those deaths were boating accidents in Alaska, according to the newly-published “2012 Recreational Boating Statistics” by USCG. The report looks at the frequency and type of boating accidents nationwide. The accidents listed included one drowning fatality last summer near Fourth of July Beach in Seward.

In Alaska, the five most frequent causes of boating accidents last year were from flooding or swamping (six accidents); from capsizing (four); falling overboard (four); colliding with a fixed object (three); or crashing into another recreational vessel (three). About half of all Alaska fatalities occur in fresh water, and the other half in salt water, and nine out of 10 deaths are adult males, according to the USCG Office of Boating Safety.

Lang arrived for the chamber luncheon at The Breeze Inn with the friendly, oversized boating safety mascot, PFD Otter, accompanied by the USCG Cutter Mustang’s Commander Lisa Motoi and a few other helpful Coast Guard duty officers. Together, they had given numerous tours of the Mustang, the locally-based cutter, and visited schools to educate students about boating safety. The Mustang will soon leave Seward waters to patrol areas of the Arctic, particularly the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, near where Shell Oil’s exploratory oil drilling took place last year.

Every year, the Coast Guard joins with a good many partners nationwide to raise awareness about boating responsibly. They encourage all boaters to take appropriate precautions before casting off during the upcoming this season.

“Probably the most important thing is to wear your life jacket,” said Lang. “One that fits properly, and don’t wait until there’s a problem to put one on.” PFDs are very easy to talk about, but unfortunately, it’s also easy to digress from wearing them when out boating. Some 82 percent of the people who died from boating accidents last year were not wearing PFDs, she said.

The national Kids Don’t Float program, with its free life-jacket loaner boards at 700 harbors statewide, is a particularly important program, therefore. Everyone 13 years old and under is required to wear a life jacket on both docks and boats in Alaska. be worn, said Lang. Seward currently has six loaner boards for the public to use at marine locations.

Another revealing study by the boating safety office found that whereas Alaska’s kayakers and canoers were observed wearing life jackets 89.2 percent of the time over the previous two years, people aboard motorized recreational boats only wore their personal flotation devices, or PFDs, 11.5 percent of the time.

Boating safety preparations also should include pre-floating a vessel prior to taking a trip on the water, and making that there is enough gas for the entire trip, said Lang. It’s also important to file a float plan with friends and family members prior to setting sail, and to check the marine forecast to assure possible weather challenges are understood. Boaters should also have a marine VHF radio on board to call for assistance should they need it, she said. Cell phones are no guarantee as cell reception is poor in much of Resurrection Bay and beyond.

The Seward Coast Guard Auxiliary offers free vessel safety checks to all vessels on the docks to assure that vessels have all the required safety equipment, and other equipment that mariners may need. They can complete 10 to 15 vessel exams in an hour, unless it’s a first safety check, which takes somewhat longer, she said. Her group also disseminates pamphlets and other forms of information such as the Alaska Boater’s Handbook in convenient places where boaters may be such as Bay Traders, True Value Fish House, Sailing Inc., and waterfront restaurants and businesses.

People getting ready to launch their vessel for a trip usually aren’t in the mood to discuss boating safety then and there, said Lang. So volunteers wander the waterfront campgrounds during the evening hours over the summer months, talking to people, handing out safety pamphlets and arranging vessel safety checks.

Eleven agencies in the immediate area can ticket boaters for safety violations, she said. They include the City of Seward’s harbor staff, police, fire department, Alaska State Troopers, State Parks, State Forest, Kenai Fjords National Parks, U.S. Forest Service and Coast Guard, to name just a few.

Seward is fortunate to have a fire boat located in the Seward Small Boat harbor available to respond to accidents, said Lang. The Mustang also has an inflatable that can be launched in an emergency, and other vessels in the area often respond to boating accidents they hear of over VHF radio.

Fortunately, Alaska’s 22 deaths experienced last year were an unusual increase over the average of 12 to 14 boating accidents in the state over the past few years, whereas generally the numbers of fatalities have been going down. Alcohol use also was the leading contributing factor in 17 percent of the recreational boating fatalities in 2012, according to the boating safety report.


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