WASHINGTON – During Labor Day weekend 2005, 11-year-old Michael Emmet, of Boyds, was swimming by his family’s parked motorboat in Western Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake when an inexperienced tourist driver reversed his rented motorboat 15 to 20 feet, catching the boy’s foot in an outboard propeller, shredding nerves, tendons and skin.
The injury that forced a three-day hospitalization and months of recovery was the lake’s most serious that summer, but not its first: Emmet was at least the 30th boating accident victim brought to Garrett Memorial Hospital’s emergency room in two months.
“I’ve had to chopper people out of there,” said Donna Alvarez, an orthopedic surgeon at the hospital for more than 20 years. “Smashed pelvises, femur fractures, major extremities, lacerations . . . a lot of head and neck injuries. . . . I’ve seen it all.”
Deep Creek Lake now officially rivals Ocean City for the state’s most recreational boating accidents, the latest available U.S. Coast Guard records show.
Deep Creek, a manmade freshwater lake about one mile across with about 65 miles of shoreline, saw more boating accidents reported to the Coast Guard in 2005 than did Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay proper, which touches 11 Maryland counties and parts of Virginia.
In fact, the lake had more recreational boating accidents than in any other area in the state all year, according to the Coast Guard’s national database of recreational boating accident reports.
It’s the reversal of longtime figures: In 1998, the Ocean City area reported nearly four times as many recreational boating accidents to the Coast Guard than did the mountain lake.
“It’s not like we’ve got the black hole at Deep Creek,” said Lt. David Gough, data keeper for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, which oversees state boating safety. “It’s just a place where we’ve got a lot of people, and maybe a lapse of good judgment sometimes … or just accidents.”
To appear in the Coast Guard’s database, a boating accident must qualify by one of these measures: the boat is totaled, someone died, boat damages exceed $2,000, a victim is missing and presumed dead or injured, or a victim requires medical attention beyond first aid.
Maryland, with more than 4,000 miles of shoreline and 200,000 registered recreational vessels, saw 183 serious recreational boating accidents in 2005, Coast Guard data shows. Of those, Deep Creek accounted for 32, or 16.9 percent.
Ocean City’s 29 accidents were 15.84 percent of the state’s total — most in local waterways like the Isle of Wight Bay, the Assawoman Bay and the Sinepuxent Bay, and not along the Atlantic shore.
Deep Creek, Ocean City, and other congested areas, like Annapolis and Solomon’s Island, are considered “hot spots” by the Maryland Natural Resources Police and the Coast Guard, Gough said.
“Wherever you’ve got more traffic, the more you’re going to have problems,” he said.
No fatalities and few long-term hospitalizations resulted from 2004 and 2005 recreational boating accidents on Deep Creek Lake, the data shows, but most caused injuries requiring emergency room attention.
Deep Creek Lake prohibits boats larger than 27 feet, so unsurprisingly the overwhelming majority of vessels involved in the listed accidents were open motorboats, including performance speedboats, runabouts, pontoon boats and aluminum jon or bass-fishing boats.
While Emmet’s propeller accident was the only one that summer, the Coast Guard database shows that Deep Creek Lake has seen 20 propeller injuries over the past 10 years, typically when someone is struck by a moving motorboat or is re-entering a running motorboat from the water. Most 2005 accidents, however, involved just one boat, half of which were towing passengers — water-skiers, wake boarders or tubers.
Many reports for these accidents listed “passenger or skier behavior” as the cause, a term which boating police said often translates as “skier or passenger inexperience.”
“Most of the accidents we’re seeing are from awkward falls,” said Lt. Brad Stafford, Maryland Natural Resources Police commander for Garrett County. “Slips, trips and falls, that’s what we’re mostly dealing with.” The ranger cited a 2006 incident in which an inexperienced male skier failed to release a tow rope when a wide wake pulled his legs apart “spread-eagle,” and cracked his pelvis. “A lot of the injuries that come to me are rope injuries,” Alvarez said. “If you’re a beginning skier and you hit the water and forget to let go of the rope, you get dragged,” causing lacerations, dislocations or other injuries.
Two key elements of successful water-skiing and wake boarding, are the towed passenger’s athletic skill and boat operator understanding, said Steve Green, co-owner of High Mountain Sports.
The expert ski instructor cannot fathom that parents do whip turns and pull children on tubes behind boats going 35 miles per hour.
“I say ‘They wouldn’t drag them behind a car at that speed.'”
Tight, quick turns get a squeal from passengers on tubes or banana boats, said Troy Ellington, a Deep Creek Lake Property Owners’ Association board member as well as year-round lake resident.
The typical driver in these incidents is “Mom and Dad or Mom and Dad’s friends out on the lake with the kids, with only a so-so understanding of boating laws,” said Gough.
Indeed, boat drivers in 2005 boating accidents on Deep Creek Lake were all adults between ages 30 and 65. Some listed less than 20 hours experience driving a motorboat, but many reported having more than 500 hours.
Few reported any boater safety education, many were non-residents and more than half were piloting rentals.
Marla Watkins, a sales associate at High Mountain Sports and lifelong lake-area resident who turns 23 on May 6, took a mandated one-day boating safety course last summer so she could operate a motorized vessel.
So did Ed Scofield, who rents boats at his Deep Creek Lake Boat Sales shop, albeit years ago.
Both expressed frustration that the same law that put Watkins in boater safety school allows adults born before a cutoff date to rent or drive motorboats any time, whether they have the aptitude, experience, or education.
“It’s an insult to the rest of us who had to take the course,” said Scofield, who has seen a number of his rented boats crash.
“Once they leave the dock, it’s like a teenager with a car, you just hope for the best,” he said. “My impression is that most of them leave their brains on the dresser and grab their American Express card and let the good times roll.”
The increase in the lake’s boating accidents has coincided with area development, Coast Guard data shows.
The recreational population boomed with the bullish housing market, the 1991 completion of Interstate 68 — which shortened and simplified the drive from the Washington and Baltimore areas — and more sewer capacity, which has allowed more development.
Deep Creek Lake now has about 720 rental homes and about 5,800 “second homes,” said Deb Clatterbuck, Garrett County Chamber of Commerce tourism director, a number double that of 10 years ago.
It’s now possible to commute by boat to shopping, dining and entertainment. All but one of Deep Creek Lake’s 33 commercial businesses lie on a seven-mile strip on the north side of the lake, where there are dining and watering holes, including the popular Red Run Inn, Silver Tree Harbor Bar and Honi-Honi bar.
“You can do everything you want by boat,” Clatterbuck said. When Norma Richardson and her husband moved to the area in 1974, tourists were from Pittsburgh, lake homes were cabins and cottages, and lake action was sailing, canoeing and fishing, she said.
Now, she sees more visitors from Baltimore, Northern Virginia and the D.C. area staying in big lake homes with three to four master suites, a lot of them designed for rentals.
“If you ride around and look at the docks there,” Richardson said, “there’s not just one boat, there are two boats, two Jet Skis. Lots of toys.”
“They call it ‘Maryland’s Best Kept Secret’,” said Leslie Porter, a Deep Creek Lake State Park associate who has lived in the area for one-and-a-half years. “They keep joking that ‘the secret’s out.'”
– 30 –