As the unofficial start to summer rolls around this weekend, hordes of boaters will hit the water for the floating festivities of Memorial Day weekend.

Boating safety tips

Wear a properly fitting life jacket.

Last year, nearly 85 percent of 459 drowning death victims were not wearing life jackets. Putting a life jacket on is much harder once you are in the water, particularly if you are injured.

Stay with your boat.

If you do find yourself in trouble and in the water, stay with your vessel for as long as possible, even if it capsizes. Do not try to swim for shore.

Pay attention.

In 2012, the No. 1 factor in all boating accidents was operator inattention, which contributed to 47 deaths and 359 injuries. If you are operating your vessel, stay focused solely on that task.

Source: Coast Guard

Some will be well-prepared with the right safety gear and a vessel in good condition. Others may find that their boat is not up to snuff.

“Depending on the weather, we get a lot of calls from people in trouble. A boat in distress and taking on water,” said Charleston Police Sgt. Chad Womack.

Add drinking skippers to the mix and this holiday becomes one of the most challenging for marine law enforcement.

“Anything that happens on land, it pretty much happens on the water,” Womack said.

Most of what is expected to keep officials busy over the three-day weekend will be safety checks for things such as regulation life jackets, a whistle or horn that can be heard a half-mile away, valid registration and night navigation lights, he said.

There are approximately 450,000 recreational motorboats registered in South Carolina. In 2011 there were 19 boating fatalities with 98 accidents.

In 1973 there were 64 fatalities as a result of recreational boating accidents, and there were only 128,000 registered boats. Better boating laws and safety-education classes are the reason for the reduced number of accidents, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

DNR has “zero tolerance” for life jackets that don’t measure up because they are torn or have missing straps, said 1st Sgt. Lee Ellis.

Bow riding is dangerous, particularly for children, because they can slide right through a rail, he said.

Although drinking is allowed on board, officials recommend a designated boat driver. The same blood alcohol content that determines drunk driving applies to boating, Ellis said.

It’s important to check the condition of a boat before hitting the water. Make sure the gas is fresh and a fire extinguisher is aboard for vessels with built-in fuel tanks, he said.

The Coast Guard is gearing up for the big weekend.

“We’re aware of how busy it is going to be. Our Command Center is ready to respond,” said Petty Officer Chad Dills.

Alcohol is banned on Morris Island near Folly Beach because it is considered a city park. No-wake zones will be in effect and boat safety checks will be conducted at the Charleston City Marina, Womack said.

DNR will conduct courtesy boat inspections from 9 a.m. to noon today at landings on Leeds Avenue, the Folly River and at Remleys Point. The free inspection will be offered during the same time period on Sunday at Wappoo Cut boat landing, Ellis said.

A license is not required to operate a recreational boat in South Carolina, but anyone under age 16 must complete a boating course approved by DNR before being allowed to pilot a vessel with a 15 horse power motor or greater. Or they have to be accompanied by someone at least 18 years old.