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Death, injury in the wake

A quiet lake, the sun starting to set as the day grows long. A father and daughter on a boat ride, a turn too wide, now on course for an unintended destination:

A concrete dock.

On impact, she is vaulted over the dock and into the water on the other side. His trajectory is lower, and he skids across the dock's surface.

Jose Armando Bejar, 36, was fortunate to suffer only severe scrapes and bruises. His teenage daughter emerged virtually unscathed.

"If (the dock) would have been a foot higher," Bejar would have been killed, said Hillsborough sheriff's Sgt. Ronald Hartley, "Death would have been (by) massive blunt trauma."

Hartley, who heads the marine unit of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, has seen many accidents like Bejar's, which occurred two weeks ago on Keystone Lake.

Bejar of Clearwater and his daughter were riding a water scooter, known in the industry as personal watercraft, and popularly referred to by brand names like Jet Ski, Sea-Doo and WaveRunner.

But when driven by inexperienced or irresponsible operators, they're better known to Hartley as a serious safety hazard _ one found with increasing frequency on the many small lakes in northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties.

"Years ago the waterways weren't crowded, and on a lake, a busy day you might have had two boats," Hartley said. "Now on a Saturday or a Sunday, you have 30, and 15 of them are personal watercraft."

They are involved in "a disproportionate amount of accidents, and a disproportionate amount of serious accidents," Hartley said. Though personal watercraft make up a small percentage of registered boats, "we've investigated three boating accidents in the past week, and two involved (water scooters)."

Ralph Cooper owned the dock Bejar crashed into. The incident has Cooper concerned about the safety of his family, and he's not alone. Several homeowners along the lake have put out buoys in an attempt to keep water scooters away from their shorelines.

"I have a son who likes to swim out there, and when you're 6-foot-2 you've got to get into a fair depth of water to swim," Cooper said. "We've been looking for a while at putting buoys out there. .


. I think we'll probably have to do it now."

Cooper said he was surprised to learn from deputies that personal watercraft operators aren't required to have a license, instruction or insurance.

Bejar had never driven one before his accident, said sheriff's Deputy Darrell Kandil, who attributed the crash to "being too close to shore, operator inattention, inexperience and unfamiliarization" with the surroundings.

Cooper said he does not want to see scooters banned from Keystone and other small lakes, but he would like to see a regulation to "keep them 50 feet off the shore or something."

He said he has no concerns with scooters themselves. "I've driven them and they're a blast," he said. It would be fine if "people would just learn to control them properly, learn how to use them before they jump on them."

Kenny Carson of Odessa rides his Sea-Doo on local lakes and in the Gulf of Mexico. He agreed that water scooters aren't inherently dangerous.

"If you know how they work, know how to turn, know how to stop, it's not a problem," said Carson. "(My friends and I) know how to have fun without running each other over or hitting anything. A (scooter) isn't dangerous at all if you know what you're doing."

However, Carson said, many users don't know what they're doing.

"I've seen people run into each other, hit other boats, " he said. "They get up 45-50 (miles per hour) and don't know how to stop. . . . One almost hit me the other day."

In an informal poll of 20 lakefront residents in north Hillsborough, 12 said they would like water scooters at least to be regulated by speed and distance from shore. Eight of the 12 said they would support a ban.

Five residents noted no major concerns. Three said they owned or regularly used water scooters and all said they should be allowed on lakes.

"I would support some conditions," said Leslie Teague, whose home borders Lake Carroll. "Sometimes it's a problem."

Everyone seems to agree that the biggest problems involve users without sufficient instruction and experience on the high-speed, brakeless vessels.

Most watercraft can't be steered unless they're under power. Unfortunately, Hartley said, cutting the gas is how many inexperienced operators react when they are speeding along and face an obstacle. Then, Hartley said, "it's a missile."

"The first thing (they) do is let off the accelerator and step on the brake," Hartley said. "But there is no brake. And by the time they realize that, it is two or three days later when they wake up in the hospital."

Some operators don't consider that the scooters are faster than most boats while providing far less protection.

"A lot of these operators have never been on the water (as a boater) before," Deputy Kandil said. "They don't understand that you're under the same rules of the road as if you're in a car. . . . And on a (scooter), an accident is going to be an ejection."

According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, there were 20 reported boating accidents in Hillsborough in 1996 (the most recent year available). Seven of those (35 percent) involved personal watercraft.

Statewide, in 45 percent of water scooter accidents the operator claimed fewer than 20 hours of experience with the craft. Another 25 claimed 20 to 100 hours.

"And a lot of those are inflated," Hartley said. "That's supposed to be time put in on the craft, but a guy gets a (scooter), goes to the beach for a weekend, crashes and says he has 48 hours."

It is true that Hillsborough County has not had a personal watercraft fatality in several years, and in 1996, accident levels actually dropped after a steady rise since the machines were introduced. Statewide fatalities also fell, from 12 in 1995 to four in 1996.

"With the inordinate amount of accidents we've had, we've been lucky," Hartley said. But in the wake of accidents in Florida, legislation has been introduced to require licenses for operators.

Currently, there is some regulation. For example, in most situations no one younger than 14 is allowed to operate personal watercraft. Also, dealers and rental agencies must display safety information and explain proper use to renters.

"Your reputable dealers will go over the whole machine," Hartley said. "They're doing everything they can to make it a safe sport."

But Hartley believes more education is necessary.

"If you don't have any experience with them, you need to go to one of the Coast Guard (boating safety) schools," he said.