Danger and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage loom on Lake Michigan and other Region waterways, a Times investigation of federal records shows.
And safety experts say much of it revolves around inexperience at the controls of recreational watercraft.
As hundreds of boaters begin taking to Region waters this Memorial Day weekend, those experts warn it may not be as easy and safe as many think.
A Times review of U.S. Coast Guard boating accident data on Region waterways from 2006 to 2015 revealed:
* At least 65 accidents occurred on Lake, Porter or LaPorte County waterways.
* Those accidents resulted in at least 14 boating-related deaths and 34 injuries.
* At least $627,655 in damage was associated with those accidents.
* Lack of experience was noted in 6 percent of those accidents, but experts say it plays an even greater role than what the records reveal.
* Alcohol was listed as a factor in about 15 percent of the Region's boating accidents.
Meanwhile, boating accidents appear to be on the rise.
Recently released U.S. Coast Guard data for 2016 showed 4,463 boating accidents nationwide, a 6.83 percent increase year over year.
Some 701 people throughout the country died in those accidents.
National data found the No. 1 cause of boating accidents in 2016 was alcohol, followed by boating inexperience and hazardous water.
A dangerous cocktail
Region boating safety experts and law enforcement warn of the dangerous cocktail created when boaters become intoxicated on lakes and other waterways.
Any operator can be subject to a boating accident or fatality because of alcohol.
About 3 a.m. on July 23, Richard Wade, of Hammond, and Timothy Dunlap, of Lynwood, were found dead and Tony Gibson, of Lake Village, was found seriously injured after the boat in which they were traveling crashed into a break wall on Lake Michigan near the East Chicago Marina, authorities said.
Reduced visibility, excessive speed and boating under the influence of alcohol were the key causes of the accident, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
The Lake Michigan speed limit at night is 10 mph. It is believed that the vessel was traveling about 60 to 70 mph.
Beyond the danger, one local police officer also noted there are legal ramifications for getting caught boating while intoxicated.
“You think you can’t get in trouble for drinking on a lake, but yes you can,” said Jesse Wilson, a New Buffalo, Michigan, police officer who helps patrol Region waterways. “If you’re caught with a DUI drinking on a lake, we will tow your boat in, and you will go to jail because the scariest part is there are so many other things out there that you can affect.”
Lack of experience
While alcohol and boating can make a dangerous mix, another factor is even more common in watercraft accidents, Region boating experts said.
A mix of operator inexperience and hazardous waters frequently causes accidents. These factors are exacerbated by improper equipment and not knowing the rules of the lake.
The lack of boating operator requirements allow owners to go out on the waters without any training.
“Proceed into every situation with caution because there aren’t requirements to buying a boat and taking it out on the water,” said Joel Florek, program director for Michigan City Yacht Club Sailing School. “Not everyone has to go take a test. There are a lot of people out there who don’t know what they’re doing, and that makes it dangerous for everyone else.”
The best way to stay safe on the water is to be informed on the rules of boating, he said.
Understanding the right-of-way guidelines are the most basic rules to know when hitting the water with other vessels. According to Florek, power boats need to yield the right of way to any boats without engines, including paddle boats or paddle boarders. He also advised smaller boats to give bigger vessels space because they will not be able to maneuver as quickly.
Another aspect of boating commonly overlooked is life jackets. Luis Morales, of the Michigan City-based U.S. Coast Guard, believes life jackets are the No. 1 thing that can save lives in boating accidents.
Nationally, 80 percent of fatalities were drownings. Of those, 83 percent of victims were cited as not wearing life jackets, Coast Guard statistics show.
Morales emphasizes the importance of not only wearing a life jacket, but wearing one that fits. If a life jacket is too big, hitting the water will make you sink through the jacket. If it’s too small, there will not be enough buoyancy to keep you afloat.
However, even a perfect fitting life jacket cannot keep you from feeling the harsh effects of the water’s temperature, according to Nicole Coleman, Florek’s fiance and experienced sailor.
“Especially at the beginning of boating season, the water temperature can be so cold, but the days can be really warm,” Coleman said. “Those are the most dangerous days because people don't understand the shock value of the water.”
As Northwest Indiana boaters rev up their engines for the Memorial Day weekend and beyond, maritime law enforcement officials are stressing how important it is to keep these safety tips in mind.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each boater.
“We’re here for your safety, not to be jerks,” Wilson said. “It’s the times when you don’t check up on safety that it can become a bad day for you and the people around you. Knowing the rules and safety precautions is what keeps a boater safe.”