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Sheriff Hodapp offers tips for safe boating

Mark Manion of Minneapolis, a Fishing Has No Boundaries angler, and his attendant, Gale Yurch of Bemidji, show the safe boating practice of wearing lifejackets. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

While warm temperatures welcome many to area lakes and rivers, the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office would like to remind lake users to pay attention and use common sense when on those waters.

The following is from Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp:

- Most deaths among boaters are caused by falls overboard and capsizing. In a small boat, occupants should resist the urge to stand up. If one must move, however, he or she should keep their weight low and close to the center of the craft.

- Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD or life jacket), especially in small boats. Models are available for all ages and for various boating activities.

- Collisions with a second boat or another object don't just happen. They are usually the result of inattention, fatigue, and a lack of knowledge about local water conditions.

- Keep an eye on the weather, especially on larger lakes such as Leech, Winnibigoshish, Lake of the Woods or Superior. Obtain up-to-date weather information from a marine band radio, AM radio, or by simply watching the sky. (Summer storms in Minnesota usually come from the west, particularly from the southwest.)

- If caught in rough weather, put on a PFD, stay low in the boat and head for the closest shore. In heavy waves, a boat handles best when you head into the waves at an angle.

- Inflatable toys are no substitute for swimming skills. Learn how to swim and everyone should know their swimming ability. Supervise youngsters in and around the water.

- If someone is in trouble in the water, use elementary rescue methods first, such as throwing something that floats to the victim. Only as a last resort should someone enter the water to save someone; even then, they should take a buoyant object, like a PFD, with them.

- Before leaving on a boating or fishing trip, let someone know where the destination and expected time of return.

- Hypothermia (have a body temperature below normal) is an insidious killer that is involved in perhaps as many as one-half of Minnesota's boating deaths each year. Immersion in cold water (less than 70°F) causes the body to lose heat faster than it can produce it, decreasing the body's inner (core) temperature. This decrease can cause symptoms ranging from continual shivering, poor coordination, and numb hands and feet in moderate cases, to hallucinations and eventual death in most extreme situations. Cold water robs body heat 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. If someone does capsize or falls out of a boat, he or she should immediately attempt to re-board the watercraft. Most small boats, if overturned, can be righted and bailed out.

- Booze is bad news. Alcohol and drugs are involved in about one-third of all boating fatalities. In fact, a Coast Guard study from a few years back showed that a boater who was legally intoxicated was 10 times more likely to become involved in a fatal accident than one who was sober. Alcohol also adversely affects vital body functions such as balance, coordination, vision and judgment. Combining the effects of cold water and alcohol can speed the onset of hypothermia, causing even good swimmers to drown in minutes - often within a few yards of safety.

- Wearing a PFD will help protect its wearer from hypothermia in several ways. It decreases the amount of movement necessary to remain afloat, and it also helps to insulate you from heat loss. A PFD will also keep you afloat if you become unconscious due to hypothermia.

- Each year, people are seriously injured and killed by being hit by a propeller. Be sure to turn off the motor any time people are in the water near a boat, especially near the stern. Never allow passengers to board or exit from the boat when the motor is running. The propeller may continue to turn even when the motor is in neutral, or someone could accidentally bump the shift lever. Stay away from other boats towing skiers or tubers. Never use reverse to pick someone up from the water, instead go around again. Don't let them sit on the transom, gunwales or bow while underway, unless there are adequate railings to prevent falling overboard. Use the engine cut-off lanyard that came with your motor and consider installing propeller safety devices.

- The circle of death: Every year, serious injuries and deaths occur when operators let go of the steering wheel or outboard steering handle while the boat is moving. A phenomenon called steering torque forces the motor to slam left causing the boat to swerve sharply to the right, throwing the victim into the water. The boat continues to travel in a circle and returns to strike the victim in the water, inflicting massive propeller wounds. Thus the term, "circle of death."

- The way to avoid the circle of death accidents is to avoid letting go of the steering wheel or handle until the boat ceases all forward motion. If you notice that it takes extra pressure on the steering wheel or handle, have your boat serviced immediately. On some smaller outboards, repair may be as simple as tightening a bolt. For outboards and inboard-outboard craft, corrective measures may involve resetting the boat's trim tab, the small fin mounted on the anti-ventilation or cavitation plate just behind the prop. If the motor is equipped with an automatic kill switch, be sure to fasten the lanyard to jacket or some article of clothing such as a belt loop. If someone does fall out of the boat, the lanyard, which is attached to the electrical system, disables the motor, keeping the boat from circling back.

- Be sure that clamp-on swivel seats are tightly secured and that seat backs are sturdy enough to support your weight.

- Additional information about boating safety can be found at