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U.S. Coast Guard: 73 people have died on the Great Lakes this year

Aug 29, 2019 06:33AM ● By Editor

By Darren Taylor of Soo Today - August 29, 2019

Boaters from both sides of the border will be enjoying activities on the St. Marys River and the Great Lakes during the upcoming Labour Day long weekend, marking the unofficial end of summer.

With that in mind, United States Coast Guard (USGC) Sector Sault Ste. Marie officials have reached out to SooToday with the message of ‘have fun, but be safe.’

“We would like to inform the public this has been an extremely challenging year throughout the Great Lakes,” said USGC Sector Sault Ste. Marie Chief Ben Conner.

“As a result of high water levels, and water that’s always cold, and unfortunately people not wearing their life jackets, there have been over 70 deaths in 2019 throughout the Great Lakes, as far east as Buffalo and as far west as Duluth.”

That figure, Conner said, includes one fatality on the St. Marys River in April.

The individual was not wearing a life jacket, Conner said.

The 73 deaths recorded this year involved American citizens, Conner said.

“There was one incident that involved a drowning (in the Sault, Ontario area). The drowning involved no life jacket. This occurred on an in-land lake,” stated Sault OPP Constable Terry Chitaroni, in an email to SooToday.

“There have been 71 boating fatalities on OPP patrolled waters, 91 per cent male, 9 per cent female. 20 per cent of the fatalities occur in August, 24 per cent occur on Saturdays and 57 per cent occur on inland lakes. 73 per cent of the deceased victims were not wearing a personal floating device,” Chitaroni reported.

Falling overboard, capsizing and collisions with fixed objects are the three main causes of boating fatalities, Chitaroni wrote.

“What we’d like to do ahead of the Labour Day weekend is just remind folks of the many dangers on the water,” the USCG's Conner said.

“Especially this year, with high water levels, people need to be more vigilant and understanding that with the water so high there are things under the water they’d normally be able to see (such as rock formations), but now, with the water being three or four feet higher they can’t see them, and with the water levels so high there’s a current in areas where there’s normally no current.”

“With the water in the St. Marys River and Lake Superior always cold, survivability in that water is about three hours,” Conner said.

“We’re trying to encourage everyone to be safe, wear their life jackets, have an appropriate life jacket for everybody on board, and to have a float plan. That means let somebody know where you’re going on your boat and when you plan to return. In order for us to know you’re missing, someone has to know about it and report it to us so we can go search for them,” Conner said, adding statistics show 80 per cent of those U.S. boaters who perished on the Great Lakes 2019 were not wearing life jackets.

“We want to emphasize the importance of life jackets and not putting them on last minute. It’s much harder to put them on when the vessel’s sinking, when you’re already in the water, when there’s a state of panic among the passengers on board a vessel.”

Alcohol, Conner said, was not a factor in the lone reported St. Marys River fatality in April 2019, but statistics show alcohol is indeed a factor in 20 per cent of all vessel collisions.

Stories with happy endings regarding people wearing life jackets, Conner said, include that of a 57-year-old woman surviving in Lake Erie for 14 hours after falling from her water craft, and another of two men surviving for 16 hours on top of their capsized vessel in Lake Huron, equipped with life jackets and flashing lights to alert helicopters to their presence.

“Another thing we’d like to point out is with canoes, kayaks and paddle boards, you’re required to have a life jacket with you, and if they flip over, you may be too late trying to get a life jacket on if you’re not wearing one already,” said Lieutenant Sean Murphy.

It’s also important to label a canoe, kayak or paddle board with personal contact information, Murphy said.

“If we find it, then we can reach out and say ‘we’re conducting a search and rescue case for whoever was in this boat, do you have any information on who took it out, where they were going, where they could be or did it just drift from your shore?’ That will help us immensely in determining if it is or isn’t a distress case.”

“We encourage people to go out on the water and have fun, but be safe,” Conner said prior to USCG Sector Sault Ste. Marie treating SooToday to a brief spin on the St. Marys River near the Sault, Michigan waterfront on one of its 45 foot (13 metre) long vessels.

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