Saturday, April 21, 2018
Public safety

Boating safety officers want to be life preservers, not buzzkills

The officers were nearing the end of their shift when they saw the white yacht rushing across the gulf, the teens' legs dangling over the bow.

Officer Jacob Cocke whipped the boat of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission around, flipped on his blue lights and sped toward the yacht, named College Fund.

The danglers had climbed down from their perch by the time officers eased up alongside the yacht and tied the boats together with black rope. Lt. Dan Parisoe leaned in to address them.

Before he could even begin, the yacht's captain interjected.

"I told them," he said disapprovingly, shaking his head and chuckling.

Parisoe was undeterred.

Though the view was better on the bow, he said sternly, one big bump could turn the day from carefree to tragic. His lesson was as much for the teens, who listened intently, as the adults onboard.

"They could fall," Parisoe warned, "and be under the boat before you'd even have time to stop."

• • •

Florida leads the nation in boat ownership, with 896,632 vessels registered in the state last year. But there are only so many officers to regulate boaters' behavior in the open waters of the gulf. For Parisoe and his crew, "It's not really about writing tickets; it's about education."

While they occasionally patrol for specific violations, like out-of-season fishing or boating under the influence, their checks are often random and informative. Their hope is to get ahead of tragedy with safety lessons.

In Pinellas County alone, there were 47 boating accidents last year that killed eight people and injured 22 others. Statewide, there were 62 fatalities and 420 injuries.

Middle-aged men with no formal training are most likely to be involved in accidents.

Speed and distracted drivers are other common factors.

Piloting a boat isn't like driving a car. Boats crisscross paths and trail each other's wakes. Cocke said he often sees water scooters weave between anchored boats at a sandbar, with no regard for swimmers.

Often, he said, personal watercraft tow tubers but don't use a lookout or have a wide-angle rearview mirror.

"We focus on Jet Skis a lot because they can get closer to beaches and swimmers," said Pinellas sheriff's Deputy Charlie Tita, who has been with the agency's marine unit for 23 years. "They like to operate in close proximity to each other."

Most people involved in accidents have ample boating experience and can swim, but aren't wearing flotation devices or have been drinking — making drowning the leading cause of death in boating accidents.

It's not illegal to consume alcohol on a boat. The operator just has to maintain a blood alcohol content below the legal limit. But, Cocke said, "if there's two people on board and 25 beer cans, that tells you something."

On land, Parisoe said, a primary concern in a drunken driving collision is the collision itself.

But in a boat, he said, it's what happens after the crash. If a passenger has been drinking, his balance or swimming ability could be compromised. A minor head injury in the water could be fatal.

"It's not like being on land," Parisoe said. "Now you're a casualty."

• • •

When the officers from the wildlife commission set out for their shift, they never know what they will face. Their coverage area is vast and cumbersome. The statistics tell them their presence is needed.

Parisoe and his crew patrol the waters around Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, keeping a close eye on areas like Hurricane Pass, Anclote Key, Three Rooker Island, Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island. In Tampa Bay, officers look out for partiers at a hangout nicknamed Beer Can Island.

Sometimes they stop several boaters for dangerous behavior; other times they don't encounter any reckless operators.

Last weekend they joined forces with local law enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard for "Operation Dry Water," an annual public education campaign to combat boating under the influence.

They didn't find anyone who had overindulged — because they think it was the calm before the storm otherwise known as the long Fourth of July weekend.

This weekend, the commission planned to have extra officers on duty to conduct safety checks and watch for dangerous boating activity. The sheriff's marine unit planned to loan life jackets to children as part of Operation Kid Float.

"We're not trying to spoil anybody's fun," Cocke said. "We just don't want to work any deaths."

Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kemettler.

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