DNR spread thin with more boaters on water

Boats travel through the Wappoo Cut Thursday, May 27. The Department of Natural Resources is patrolling boaters to keep the waters safe.

While cruising the Intracoastal Waterway in her Department of Natural Resources patrol boat Thursday, Officer Stephanie Weaver pulled alongside two young fishermen for a safety inspection.

"Y'all are just getting warmed up, aren't you?" said Brock Renkas, who already had his fishing license out as his shipmate showed Weaver the life jackets. It was a slow day on the water near Wappoo Landing, but Weaver said she expected heavy traffic over Memorial Day weekend.

Weaver said routine inspections like this are rarely dramatic, but the things she checks -- life jackets especially -- can make the difference between life and death. So far this year, according to the DNR, there have been 15 boating fatalities in South Carolina, compared with a total of 11 for all of 2009.

Why the increase? DNR Lt. Robert McCullough said it might have to do with a continually rising number of boaters in the state. South Carolina, he said, is eighth nationwide in the number of registered boaters, with about 418,000.

"There are only so many lakes and rivers in the state, so much shoreline, so eventually it crowds up just like highways do," McCullough said.

U.S. Coast Guard Auxilliary member Andy Poole said another factor might be a decrease in the number of law enforcement officers on the water. It has the effect of taking highway troopers off the road, he said.

"If you're driving down the interstate and you see an officer, you instantly take your foot off the gas pedal," Poole said.

Due to budget cuts, DNR has not made any new hires in four years, McCullough said.

On an individual level, McCullough said, there are steps boaters can take to vastly reduce their risks. One is simple awareness, which means staying abreast of surroundings in crowded waters and never boating while drunk.

Another step is to not only bring life jackets, as required by law, but to wear them. Of the 11 boating deaths last year, McCullough said, 10 were drownings and one was due to a collision.

One of this year's 15 deaths, he said, was a man without a life jacket who drowned in Lake Murray after falling out of his fishing boat. Evidence suggests the man fell off the deck while the engine was running, and the boat got away from him.

"Those are the ones that constantly make me crazy," McCullough said. "For somebody that would have had a life jacket on, it would have been a funny story instead of a tragedy."

Required equipment

PFDs: U.S. Coast Guard-approved and wearable personal flotation devices for each person on board. Boats 16 feet or longer must carry a Type IV throwable device.

Fire extinguisher: Coast Guard-approved portable fire extinguisher for boats with permanent or attached gas tanks. Additional extinguishers are required in boats larger than 26 feet.

Navigation Lights: Must be on between official sunset, sunrise.

Flares: Required for vessels in coastal waters.

Bells, Whistles: Boats less than 39.4 feet must carry an efficient sound-producing device. Every vessel from 39.4 to 65.6 feet must carry a whistle and a bell.

More info: Contact the S.C. Department of Natural Resources for complete regulations.