OAKLAND COUNTY — With its numerous lakes, Oakland County is a popular destination for boat and watercraft enthusiasts.
According to a press release, Oakland’s 450 navigable lakes and 83,000 registered boats are the most of any county in Michigan.
Oakland’s lakes have accounted for countless hours of enjoyment for residents.
However, inherent risks and dangers are present, as well.
Oakland County’s Marine Safety Unit reported five drownings in 2020, with four near drownings and one fatal accident.
In statistics provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, in 2020 there were 181 boating accidents reported in the state, with 33 fatalities, including 20 drownings.
According to the DNR, there was $2,188,237 worth of property damage.
Jim Cote helps patrol Cass Lake as an officer with the Keego Harbor Police Department Marine Unit. He discussed safety issues that occur on the water.
“Majority of the violations that occur are committed by personal watercraft, and those are slow, no-wake violations,” Cote said. “It’s a misdemeanor violation, but they’re serious safety issues. People have to remember, they have to be 100 feet away from any person, place or thing in the water if they’re (going to) go above idle.”
Cote discussed an effective way to help solve safety issues on the water.
“The best thing for everyone’s safety is for anyone who operates personal watercraft or any watercraft on any lakes within the state of Michigan to take a boater safety course so that they’re familiar with the laws, regulations and the safety aspect of being on the water,” he said. “That course is offered online through the Michigan Department (of) Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division.”
Cotes’ perspective is similar to that of Brian Burwell, who is a sergeant with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s almost hard to nail down one thing, but I would say one of the biggest problems we’re having is people who don’t take the basic boater safety course, don’t know the rules of the waterway, don’t really know how to operate the watercraft,” Burwell said.
For some, not taking a water safety course is a violation of the law.
“If you were born after Dec. 31, 1978, you are required by law to take the course and have the card in your possession while operating a personal watercraft,” Cote said.
Not maintaining at least 100 feet of distance from a dock, shore or anchored boat is something Michigan Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division Sgt. Jason Becker said is a “trend.”
“Nobody really knows the cause of it,” Becker said. “They’re doing (it) a lot more than normal, and it may be because there are more boats on the water. … Who knows what the cause is, but it seems like there’s a lot more people driving too close.”
According to the DNR, the top five contributing factors in boating accidents are operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and alcohol use.
An email sent by Burwell stated that alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.
In order to reduce the risk of recreational boating accidents, the DNR suggests wearing a properly fitting life jacket and riding with an operator who has successfully completed an accredited boater safety education program.
Of the most prevalent safety issues on the water, one stood out for Becker.
“Regarding safety, No. 1 is not having enough life jackets for the number of people on the boat,” he said. “It’s one of those things people need to remember to check before they go out. For the holidays or something, they’ll have people over and inadvertently forget that they don’t have enough life jackets before they go out.”
Aside from not drinking and operating a watercraft, another safety tip Becker offered for those heading out to the water is to check equipment before going, such as lights, kill switches, bilge pumps and “other boat functionality items.”
He also suggested having a paddle and some sort of signaling device in case of distress, such as a whistle or a flare.
Before enjoying time on the water, Cotes’ safety tips include paying attention to the weather and being aware of the surroundings, the rules and the “local watercraft controls for the lake that you’re on.”
Given how popular boats and personal watercraft have become over the past year or so, taking proper safety precautions could be more important than ever.
“With the pandemic, a lot more people are hitting the water,” Burwell said. “(We’re) seeing record numbers of people coming out on the water now; the lakes are crowded, and we’re being inundated with complaints — whether it’s reckless operations or just unsafe boating. So that’s what we’ve been dealing with mostly this summer, Cass Lake being one of the largest problems we’re having right now with complaints coming in.”
According to information sent in an email by Burwell, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Marine Unit is the largest in Michigan and has over 45 part-time deputies, 23 patrol boats, two rapid-response jump boats, one hovercraft, six all-terrain vehicles, three specialty boats for search and rescue, and four snowmobiles.
Despite those positives, Oakland County previously had even more resources at its disposal, as — according to Burwell’s email — in 2008 the Marine Unit budget was over $1.7 million, before being reduced to under $700,000 in 2010 due to a recession, which resulted in more than 155 full-time positions in the agency being cut, including “many marine patrols.”
Around that time, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office began offering contracted marine patrols, which gives lake associations the opportunity to contract with their given city, township or village, which in turn pays the Sheriff’s Office for patrols.
The county works with associations for the times they want patrols.
Burwell said such an arrangement is roughly $43 per hour.
He said it has been “frustrating” to not have more funds to work with.
“We have been pushing legislators for years to get our fair share of the state funding, based on the boater registration fee,” he said. “I think we get less than 25 cents back on the dollar for every boat registered in Oakland County. … So when you’re looking at 83,000 boats registered in Oakland County, we don’t get our fair share back of (those) funds.”
According to the DNR, aside from life jackets, fire extinguishers are also legally required on boats.
The DNR also recommends carrying a first-aid kit, nautical charts and an anchor, and ensuring that the cabin of the boat’s vessel has appropriate ventilation to prevent carbon dioxide poisoning.
It is also suggested that boaters have scheduled check-in times with someone who is not boating with them, and to inform them about details such as the route of travel and expected return time.
Other recommendations include having numbers for local emergency dispatchers and the U.S. Coast Guard, along with carrying a cellphone or marine radio.
Cote shared a message for those who choose to venture out onto the water.
“Love to have (you) out on the lake; love for everybody to have a great time. But we want you to do so safely, and we want you to be able to go home at night,” he said. “We’re not there to write a bunch of tickets, but we’re out there to enforce safety, enforce laws and make sure that everybody goes home safe.”