WASHINGTON – Boating season is just getting started, but already Ocean City is dead center on the radar of Maryland state boating police.
The area is among the “big three” to watch this year, said Sgt. Ken Turner, spokesman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, which oversees state boating safety. It joins Garrett County’s Deep Creek Lake and the area surrounding Anne Arundel County’s Sandy Point State Park boat launch as the areas with the highest number of boat crashes.
Last year, the boating police mimicked state trooper strategies to crack down on boating safety around the “big three,” a strategy they plan to bring back in force after an overall reduction in boating accidents last year.
“We’re going to put the pressure on, just like the Maryland troopers did, putting up roadblocks and whatnot, just apply them to the marine area,” said Lt. Chris Richardson, area commander for the Natural Resources Police.
The Ocean City area’s 29 accidents were more than 15 percent of Maryland’s total recreational boating accidents in summer 2005, the latest available U.S. Coast Guard records show. But that total was down 24 percent from the year before.
The downward trend is one boating police would like to continue.
Last year in Ocean City and in the Deep Creek Lake area of Garrett County, helicopter patrols surveyed the area on busy weekends, radioing warnings to boat patrols on the water. Also unmarked boats called in violations.
Police established checkpoints to test boat drivers for alcohol, contributing to a 400 percent increase in drunken boating arrests. They also visited personal watercraft rental shop areas to make their presence known and ensure that renters comply with state laws.
“Stay Safe, O.C.,” signs reminded those on personal watercrafts — often called Jet Skis or WaveRunners. “Stay 100 feet from everything,” when traveling more than six knots, a recent state law goes.
Personal watercraft, including brands like Yamaha’s WaveRunner or Kawasaki’s Jet Ski, are the largest problem in Ocean City waterways, said Lt. Chris Richardson, Maryland NRP area commander.
Almost half the vessels involved in 29 area accidents reported to the Coast Guard in 2005 were personal watercraft, the Coast Guard boating accident report database shows.
More than half of these watercraft were non-rentals operated by drivers aged 16 to 21 without the required boater safety certification.
All personal watercraft users born after July 1, 1972, must carry a certificate of boater safety education, which requires a day of study and testing. Rental shops often legally skirt the issue by offering temporary day passes requiring only watching a half-hour safety video.
Many of the teens and adults operating these vessels had little or no experience, data shows.
“The PWCs, they’re a hot ticket down at the ocean. They’re simple,” said Lt. David Gough, who monitors boating accident reports for the Maryland Natural Resources Police.
“It’s easier and less expensive for an individual to rent a PWC for an hour than to round up four friends and rent a motorboat and go skiing.”
Fortunately, serious personal watercraft accidents in 2005 decreased by nearly one-third from the previous year, from 31 to 19, according to Coast Guard records. That’s way down from the 1995 record 60 personal watercraft accidents, a time when personal watercraft were in their heyday and education about them was poor.
Crowding is a part of the problem, as it is in all three of the targeted boating enforcement areas in Maryland.
“Ocean City is a harsher environment than people unfamiliar with boats may realize,” Richardson said. There are “literally thousands of boats in operation” on a pretty weekend summer day in Ocean City.
The area’s most chaotic traffic appears in back channel underneath a bridge connected to Route 50, Richardson said.
The channel can get so crowded he sometimes has trouble maneuvering his police boat through to reach a call.
Large vessels in this waterway cannot see personal watercraft racing beneath their bows, he said, and that’s a problem.
“At certain times, it’s just like a zoo.”
–30– CNS 5-1-07