Boaters urged to continue caution

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Clark County has not had a boating death since 2008, but needs to stay focused on education and enforcement to maintain that enviable safety record.

That was Tuesday's message from a gathering in Vancouver of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Clark County Marine Patrol and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Washington has had 11 boating fatalities already in 2012, plus four missing persons likely are boating-related deaths, said Jim French of the state parks commission. The commission's staff oversees boating education for the state.

Eight boaters died in seven accidents between mid-March and mid-May, French said.

"This year has not been good so far,'' he said. That compares to 2011 when Washington had a low of 15 boating deaths.

Clark County, with its strong partnership between the sheriff's office, parks department, Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary and others, is "unique, most-welcome and an excellent job,'' French said.

Todd Baker of the Clark County Sheriff's Office has been on the marine patrol for 15 years. Clark County is one of the few Washington counties with a year-round program.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, the sheriff's office will have a daily patrol boat on the Columbia River and another working daily on Merwin and Yale reservoirs on the North Fork of the Lewis River.

"In Clark County, we've been really fortunate,'' Baker said about the five-year lack of boating-related fatalities. "We have lots more work to do.''

The county marine patrol has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to enforcing life-jacket laws, he said.

It is an $87 violation for any vessel without adequate personal flotation devices, including a throwable device.

Baker said he thinks the steady enforcement in Clark County is making a difference.

"It's a lot harder to write tickets now,'' he said. "That's a good thing.''

The county hopes to have a lifejacket loaner kiosk at Klineline Pond by June 9, he said. Budget cuts have eliminated lifeguards at Salmon Creek Park.

Washington is mecca for boating, French said.

"We have some of the best waterways in the nation,'' he said. "People travel across the nation and parts of the world to enjoy the waterways we have here.''

Washington's eight confirmed fatalities have come from seven accidents — three by canoers, three by rafters and one in a kayak.

"In all of those, people grabbed something that floated and headed out to the water,'' French said.

Boating accidents seem to happen in cycles, he added.

"Fishermen-anglers were most frequently involved in accidents for probably two decades. For a short period, we had carbon monoxide deaths…later it was personal watercraft accidents. Now, we're looking at non-motorized boats.''

There is no education requirement for non-motorized boaters, although some safety classes are offered around the state.

For motorized boaters, anyone age 40 or younger must have passed a safety course and have a state boater card.

French urged boaters to check the National Weather Service forecasts before heading on the water, leave alcohol at home, and to take refresher boating safety courses.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Hans Dirksen of the U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Safety Unit Portland is a former rescue swimmer. The La Center-area resident urged anglers and others who use self-inflating lifejackets to check the automatic devices periodically.

But progress is being made, Dirksen said.

"It's amazing how far we've come with education and compliance,'' he said. "Every rescue swimmer's goal is to be unemployed.''