Outdoor Corner: Let's be safe

Lyle Johnson

I was sitting on my pier last weekend after cutting the grass, noticing the number of boats on the Diversion Canal was increasing. This is nothing unusual as temperatures are rising to near summertime levels and folks are ready to get “on the water.”

There was a really big boat heading my way, and I noticed two jet skis following very close behind. A little too close, if you know what I mean. This is a popular way for those operating the personal watercraft to jump waves. This is a lot of fun I’m sure, but it’s also very dangerous. It is against the law as well.

As summer arrives, more and more boats will be on the water. So the opportunities for boating accidents will be on the rise as well. Along with those opportunities for accidents will come the possibility of fatalities. Louisiana ranks 16th in the number of boats on the water in the nation, but we rank fifth in the number of fatalities.

Tim Tassin, his son Caden and wife Carolyn caught 25 catfish on night crawlers in Lake Palourde before 9 am on Mother’s Day.

Our location in the state is Region 7 that contains the parishes of Ascension, E. Baton Rouge, E. Feliciana, Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Washington and W Feliciana. Out of nine regions, two strike forces and one special division unit, Region 7 usually finds itself at the top of the list for boating violations. And just like any safety statistical program, more incidents usually result in more accidents.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) Enforcement Division is encouraging all boaters to practice safe boating while enjoying the waterways of Louisiana.

The reminder comes after two more boating fatalities within the past week, bringing the number of Louisiana boating fatalities in 2021 to seven. By this time in 2020, there were only two recreational boating fatalities.

”We haven’t even gotten into the prime boating season in Louisiana yet, and we are seeing fatalities climb at an alarming pace,” said Col. Chad Hebert, the head of the LDWF Enforcement Division. “We are urging boaters to please adhere to all safe boating laws and practices.”

The Enforcement Division has witnessed an uptick in the number of boating crash incidents and boating related fatalities in past couple years. The numbers of boating crash incidents reached 162 in 2020, up from 129 boating incidents in 2018 and 135 boating incidents in 2019. The number of boating fatalities also rose from 19 in 2018 and to 20 in 2019 and up to 24 in 2020.

“The boating crash incidents and fatality trend in the last year is disturbing to say the least,” Hebert said. LDWF’s Enforcement Division enforces recreational boating safety laws and investigates recreational boating crash incidents.

Hebert said the growing number of accidents in 2020 was probably boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic, where more people got outside, especially on the water, where they could practice safe distancing and still have a good time.

Chase and Chet Lavigne along with Bret Broussard caught these 25 catfish, five bream, and one sac a lait on nightcrawlers under a cork fishing about three feet deep close to the cypress trees fishing in Lake Verret on May 1.

“We saw an increase in the number of people recreationally boating along with a higher number of days on the water, especially in last year which we attribute to higher incidents and fatalities.” Hebert said. “While we are happy people can enjoy the outdoors during this time, we also want them to do it responsibly and in a safe manner.”

LDWF Secretary Jack Montoucet echoed Hebert’s sentiments about welcoming more people on the waterways, “but we have to be smart. Safe practices will be beneficial to everyone. We can help ourselves and other boaters by following the rules of the water.”

Of the 24 fatalities in 2020, 20 were recovered without wearing a PFD. Anyone 16 years of age and younger is required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved and properly fitting PFD while underway on a vessel under 26 feet long.  Also, everyone on a vessel less than 16 feet long, propelled by a hand tiller motor, must wear a PFD while underway.

There must also be a PFD for each person on board a vessel, and anyone riding on a personal watercraft must wear a PFD.

Of the 24 boating fatalities in 2020, four of them involved alcohol. Nationwide, alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating incidents, causing 19 percent of all deaths on the water.

In Louisiana, operating or driving a vessel while intoxicated has the same penalties as operating a vehicle. A DWI on the water can be issued to anyone operating a moving vessel while impaired. LDWF agents issued 78 citations for DWI on the water in 2018, 88 in 2019 and 72 in 2020.

Boaters are encouraged to take the LDWF approved safe boating course. It is mandatory for anyone born after Jan.1, 1984, to operate a motorboat over 10 horsepower. LDWF certified over 9,610 boaters in 2020. To register for the course, visit www.wlf.louisiana.gov/page/boater-education.

But in the maze of statistics are people that are not here any longer and the families that have to deal with that tragic loss. Mothers that have lost children, brothers that have lost sisters and children that have lost parents.

The hurt brought about by those losses is not measurable and doesn’t have a place in the statistics. I can think back to two incidents in the past that involved friends of mine that resulted in seven deaths. I can still see their faces.

Of all the causes listed, a large percentage of accidents and fatalities could be prevented by changing three things. First; alcohol and water don’t mix. If you’re going to be the driver, don’t drink.

Second; wearing a personal floatation device really saves lives. Only 4.1 percent of boaters observed over a five-year period were wearing them. Third; pay attention. A driver not watching where they are going or what they are doing is a big factor in all incidents.

I love riding on the water in a boat. Most of the time it’s on a fishing trip but a boat ride taking in the beauty of our state is incredible as well and enjoyable to just about anyone. But each individual has some choices to make as to how the day might end up.

The choices you make could end up with a great day on the water with memories that last a lifetime. Some end up at the hospital and unfortunately for 24 individuals in 2020, they ended up at a funeral home. Boating is a great outdoor activity; don’t let yours end up in tragedy. Remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard. So until next time have fun in the outdoors, be safe and may God bless you!