Petty Officer 3rd Class Benjamin Blakenship, a boatswain’s mate assigned to Coast Guard Station Destin, participates in tow training near Destin, Florida on June 23, 2022.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Benjamin Blakenship, a boatswain’s mate assigned to Coast Guard Station Destin, participates in tow training near Destin, Florida on June 23, 2022. (Gabriel Wisdom/U.S. Coast Guard)

Safe Boating Week begins Saturday and Coast Guard Auxiliary Division 39 in Wilmette is urging boaters to take steps now to keep themselves and passengers safe on the water this summer.

According to the most recently available data from the Auxiliary office, there were 88 boating accidents in 2021 across the state. Of those, 14 people died and 17 were injured.

Boating has always been popular in Chicagoland but, according to Public Affairs Officer for the Wilmette Harbor Station Jason Pfeffer, the COVID-19 pandemic saw an uptick in people purchasing boats as an escape.

Seven-year U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary member Dr. George Moran, a physician, said the biggest risks to boaters are lack of life jackets, or appropriately-sized life jackets, and lack of safety knowledge. His number one safety tip is knowing where the life jackets are held and/or wearing them at all times.

"The drownings in the Great Lakes collectively are more numerous than both coasts combined," Moran said. "I think it's because they're lakes and people don't think of them as inland oceans."

When alcohol is added to the mix, danger can increase. On a hot summer day, alcohol can speed up dehydration and escalate one's level of intoxication. Moran estimates that a large portion of boating incidents in the summer involve alcohol of some kind.

Moran recommends boat owners sign up online for free voluntary vessel checks from their local Coast Guard Auxiliary. These checks, which Moran often assists with, look to see if boats are in line with federal and state safety standards. If a boat passes, it's given a sticker of approval that signifies to the Coast Guard or others patrolling that the vessel has been checked, and some insurers grant discounts for approved vessels.

Checks should be done each year by boat owners to ensure their crafts are as safe as possible for the season.

During a vessel safety check, Moran said he often asks boat owners about their comfort using marine radios and doing man overboard drills. He recommends boat owners do man overboard drills with guests that are unfamiliar to make sure if the worst happens, everyone is prepared.

"You'd be surprised how many people say 'we've never done that'" he said. "Well, it's better to do it now and practice it and know your roles when the real thing happens, because it does."

Boating safety courses are also available from the Coast Guard for those interested, and nearby classes can be found on the Coast Guard Auxiliary website.

Oftentimes, according to Moran, when a boater goes overboard they end up lost in the waves because there wasn't someone there to keep their eye on them. He compared a person floating to a melon out on the water. Without constant observation, they can easily be lost.

For this reason, solo boating might not be the safest idea, but if desired, Moran says someone on land should always know the boater's float plans for the day, including where they're going and for how long.

These rules don't just apply to motorized boats. Kayakers and paddleboarders also need to brush up on their boating safety before heading out, says Moran. The knowledge of how to self rescue is important for those who partake in the sports.

Moran told of one story of a rescue where a couple went out on the lake and one fell in over half a mile from the shore and wasn't able to pull herself back on board. Luckily, she was wearing her life vest and the Auxiliary was able to help her when they arrived. Moran said this is a lesson to nonmotorized boaters to know their limitations and understand danger is still possible.

As a final tip, Moran says anyone who plans on spending time out on the lake this summer download the U.S. Coast Guard app to be able to send an emergency signal, set up a vessel safety check, view safety equipment checklists and more.

"It's the little things that can translate to life-saving issues," he said. "When problems come up, you better know the rule book."

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