Area waterways could have a busy Memorial Day weekend, and that will heighten safety concerns after the deadliest year for Alabama boating since before operator licensing became mandatory in 1999.
There were 29 fatalities from boat crashes in Alabama during 2019, compared to 17 fatalities a year earlier. There have been four fatalities resulting from boating crashes so far in 2020.
Mendy Moore, an administrative assistant for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency's Marine Patrol, said a variety of factors could have played into the increase in fatalities last year, including an increased number of people out on the water.
There could be even more people on the water this summer. Steve Conner, owner of the Riverwalk Marina, said people will be eager to get out after staying inside for extended periods of time due to social distancing precautions related to the coronavirus. He said he expects a busy weekend.
An ALEA news release advised boaters to leave room for others on the water, including swimmers and water-skiers.
Chad Pate, the northern assistant commander for ALEA’s Marine Patrol Division, said “All operators have the responsibility to slow down, stop or reverse to avoid collision."
The weather this weekend will likely be good for boating. The temperature today will be in the lower to mid 80s, and the temperature will climb to between 85 and 90 the rest of the weekend. Thunderstorms and showers are possible, but no severe storms are expected for the Decatur area.
Dan Dixon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville, said despite the decent forecast, it’s important for people to have a way to get weather information while on the water in case a storm comes.
“Lightning and gusty winds can capsize a boat even if it’s not severe,” Dixon said. He said the chance of showers and storms ranges from 40% to 60% this weekend, with the highest chance for storms falling on Saturday and Monday.
Aside from watching the weather, here are some other tips to ensure that this Memorial Day weekend remains safe on the water.
According to a report compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard, there were more than 600 fatalities from boating accidents in 2018, and alcohol consumption was the leading cause of death. Boaters should avoid alcohol and drugs while operating boats and motor vehicles to ensure the safety of their party, and that of others.
Pate said it’s important to pick a designated driver if you plan on boating in an area where alcohol is permitted.
The ALEA news release said boaters should check their boat’s safety equipment before each trip, store enough personal flotation devices for each person on board, and be familiar with rules and regulations regarding water travel.
“Yield to the larger vessels or vessels that have the right of way,” Pate said.
At night, boaters should stick to familiar territory, drive slower, and ensure that navigation lights are working correctly.
Although boating can be a great way to enjoy the outdoors while limiting contact with others, it is still important to practice social distancing. Keep yourself and others safe by maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between you and others to avoid transmission of the coronavirus, especially if you plan on boating with people from outside your household.
Although boating accidents are a concern every Memorial Day weekend, it’s especially important to prioritize safety this weekend given the likelihood of busy waters, the possibility of storms and the ongoing concern regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
By taking proper precautions, boaters can enjoy a warm weekend outdoors and safely usher in the unofficial beginning of summer.
Decatur resident Harold Pearce said he’s expecting many people will want to get outside this weekend. He said after spending last weekend boating, he and his wife are looking to purchase a boat.
“We went to Lake Guntersville this past weekend; we kind of caught the boat fever. It’s so beautiful over there,” Pearce said.
Conner is looking forward to the weekend as well: “It’s a kickoff, and the weather looks fabulous.”