By TIFFANY REPECKI
As people take to the water to celebrate the holiday weekend and start of summer, officials want to remind them to boat smart and boat safely to help prevent accidents, injuries and even fatalities.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that 10 people have lost their lives so far this year in Florida due to boating accidents. Each year, FWC officers rescue about 1,000 people.
"FWC officers are committed to keeping people as safe as possible, but we need your help," Col. Calvin Adams, director of FWC's Division of Law Enforcement, said recently. "We want to reach out to as many boaters as we can to help them understand that most boating accidents are preventable."
Memorial Day weekend and National Safe Boating Week, which runs May 24-24, provide officials with the opportunity to emphasize to the public the importance of remaining safe while boating.
"National Safe Boating Week has been around for decades," Gary Morse, FWC spokesman for the Tampa and Fort Myers regional area, said Tuesday. "It's a multi-agency national effort."
Annually, Florida leads the nation in boating accidents. The reason for the ranking is attributed to the chance for year-round boating in the state and Florida having more than a million registered boats.
In terms of boating safety, Morse cited inattention on the water as the biggest problem.
"Just because you're on the water does not mean you can stop paying attention to what's going on around you," he said. "You would not not pay attention while driving. The same goes for boating."
"It's important boaters maintain a 360 degree view," Morse added.
Attention to details before getting on the water is also key, like filing a float plan.
"Tell someone where you're going," he said. "When you're going and when you're coming back."
If the plan changes, like return time, remember to inform the contact person of the change.
"Search and rescue efforts cost taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars each year," Morse said, referring to the cost to Florida only.
Before leaving land, also check the weather and consider bringing polarized sunglasses.
"A pair of polarized glasses is very important for seeing obstructions or manatees in the water," he said, adding that hitting a manatee can injure or kill the animal and cause damage to the boat and riders.
If alcohol will be present, designate a sober boat operator who has experience on the water.
"It is the same charge and the same standard," Morse said of driving under the influence and boating under the influence. "We do safe boating checks - we will test them to see if they're intoxicated."
Personal watercrafts, like WaveRunners and Jet Skies, also pose safety concerns.
"It's a very small vessel with high horsepower. It's akin to a motorcycle on the water," he said.
Locally, there have been a "very high number" of accidents involving personal watercraft. Many of the crashes involved operators who were jumping wakes or following too close to one another.
"They should not get close to other vessels," Morse said.
"Avoid jumping wakes. Avoid following too closely or directly behind one another," he said.
Wearing a life jacket and an engine shut-off switch at all times can help increase safety.
The FWC noted that more than 67 percent of the 55 boating-related deaths confirmed in 2012 were attributed to drowning, which life jackets are designed to prevent. There are a variety of comfortable, stylish and affordable ones available, with some compact designs that inflate upon hitting the water.
"Boaters should make sure they have the appropriate type and style of Coast Guard-approved life jacket," Morse said, adding that federal law requires children under the age of 6 to wear one.
An engine shut-off switch is a lanyard that attaches from the boat operator to the boat ignition. If it is disconnected, the engine will shut down, potentially preventing a boater who has fallen overboard from being injured by a moving propeller of a runaway boat.
Other safe boating tips for on the water:
n Small vessels should steer clear of large ones. The height of large vessels can prevent the dock operator from seeing the small vessel if the small vessel is too close.
n Large vessels, specifically those tugging barges or smaller vessels, have the right-of-way.
"They cannot maneuver very quickly," Morse said.
The area's conditions should dictate how a vessel is operated.
"Learn and obey the nautical rules of the road," he said. "Obey all regulations and signs."
For more information on boating rules or requirements, visit: myfwc.com/.
The U.S. Coastguard Auxiliary and the U.S. Power Squadron offer boater safety courses.
"I think it's important that boaters continue their formal education," Morse said, adding that the classes help boaters pilot vessels safely and give further insight into safety issues and the rules of the road.