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BEWARD THE MINDLESS MARINER

The summer months will put countless boats and personal watercraft on the water, and with the invasion will come near-collisions, accidents and worse. It behooves operators of these vessels to be excessively careful and to know the rules of the road.

May, June and July are the busiest months for boating. Hundreds of thousands of vessels will hit the waves, and along with the hordes of boats and personal watercraft will come a dramatic increase in accidents and near-collisions.

The largest percentage of those mishaps will occur unnecessarily. Lives will be lost, injuries will be sustained, and millions of dollars in losses will be incurred, most from a lack of knowledge and experience.

You see it all the time _ boats running full speed and cutting across main channels; jet skiers jumping wakes in high traffic areas; boats passing others on the wrong side of the channel; boaters ignoring no-wake postings.

Take your typical hot Sunday afternoon and, with all the comings and goings, at times it gives the appearance of mayhem.

As in the airline industry, many mishaps and near-collisions occur as vessels are leaving or returning to the dock _ mainly in channels leading to open water. It is here that vessels are in close proximity and oftentimes are operating at inappropriate rates of speed.

Inappropriate doesn't always mean too fast _ for instance, a small, slow-moving john boat not giving way to a large high-speed commercial vessel in a main channel. Just the wake from the larger vessel could cause a tragedy.

In this situation there is a simple theory that applies: that of the whale and the minnow. Best the minnow beware.

Today's high-powered vessels can become lethal weapons in the hands of an inexperienced or careless operator. Tragically, more than 800 people nationwide will lose their lives enjoying a day of fun on the water. Excessive caution should be the operative words when boating in congested areas.

Boating accidents are defined as any collision, accident or casualty involving a vessel in or upon, or entering into or exiting from, the water, including capsizing, collision with another vessel or object, sinking, personal injury, death or disappearance of any person from onboard under circumstances that indicate the possibility of death or injury, or property damage to any vessel or dock.

A reportable accident is any of the above that result in the need for medical treatment beyond first aid and/or property damage totaling more than $500.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) just released its comprehensive 1999 boating accident statistics. Though they show a steady decline in the percentage of accidents involving registered boats since 1998, the number of accidents is up.

Florida's growth in registered watercraft is responsible for the offset in numbers. In 1996, Florida had 751,153 registered watercraft; that number grew to 829,971 in four years. In 1996, there were 1,193 boating accidents in Florida, or 171.5 per 100,000 registered vessels. In 1999, 1,292 boating accidents occurred, or 155.6 per 100,000.

Some other troubling statistics also were revealed. In 1999, a national comparison showed Florida ranked No. 1 for boating-related accidents and deaths. Not only that, the leading cause of accidents was careless operation.

Seventy-four percent of involved operators had no formal boating education. Personal watercraft made up only 9.8 percent of the registered vessels in Florida, but were involved in 31.8 percent of the total accidents and 52 percent of the injuries.

The most troubling statistic of all showed 55 percent of all boating fatalities last year were drug and/or alcohol related, a jump of 20 percent in one year.

"Boating fatalities caused by boating-under-the-influence are at record levels in the state of Florida," FWC executive director Dr. Alan L. Egbert said. "Raising public awareness and providing strong deterrents to boating-under-the-influence are two actions we can take to prevent such a needless loss of life."

National Safe Boating Week runs from today through Friday. Make it a point to improve your safety skills. For those starting out and with no formal boating education, get involved in one of the many courses that are offered. The life you may save may be your own.

If you have a question or comment, call Capt. Mike Scarantino at (352) 683-4868.

BOATER EDUCATION COURSES

The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary and the U.S. Power Squadron offer quality boater education courses.

Coast Guard Auxiliary offerings range from basic skills and seamanship to advanced coastal navigation. All are designed to enhance knowledge, skills and confidence.

For class schedules and information in Hernando, call Flotilla 15-8 commander Richard Stolsmark at (352) 597-7941. In Citrus, call commander Raymond Royal at (352) 628-6728 for Flotilla 15-4 in Homosassa, or commander Roger Smith at (352) 527-0065 for Flotilla 15-1 in Crystal River. In Pasco, call the public information officer of New Port Richey Flotilla 11-06 at (727) 942-2846. .

The Power Squadron has two offerings: the squadron boating course and the boat smart course.

The latter is a common-sense approach to nautical rules and regulations and is good for all levels and types of boater. The squadron course is more in-depth, covering additional topics such as an introduction to chart reading and plotting courses.

To contact the Power Squadron, call (888) 367-8777.

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