Almost every time someone has died in a boating accident in Wisconsin, the victim was not wearing a life jacket.
Yet, Wisconsin and Virginia are the only two states that do not require boaters to wear life preservers — not even children, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
A proposed bill in the Legislature that would require children younger than 13 years old to wear a life jacket failed to go to a vote last session. Department of Natural Resources recreation safety warden Jeff Dauterman said he was encouraged by attempts to create a life jacket law for children, but said it comes down to common sense for all boaters.
Mike Chadderdon, 37, of Kronenwetter takes his boat out at least once or twice a week in the summer. He said he makes sure he has enough life jackets available and within reach for everyone on board. If his kids or their friends are skiing or tubing, they must wear a life jacket.
“Always, if theyre in the water,” he said.
Its a practice his kids dont mind.
“Its what you do unless you want to drown,” said his son, Ryan, 12.
Sixteen people died in boating accidents in Wisconsin in 2009 and 15 of them did not wear a life jacket, according to the DNR. The 16th person has not been found, but Dauterman said all 16 likely could have survived had they worn a life jacket. All the deaths resulted from the person falling overboard, or the boat capsizing.
“I cant stress that its not enough to have life jackets on board; its wearing them,” Dauterman said. “It's a split second from being on a boat to struggling for your life.”
That was the case May 30 when a 33-year-old Rhinelander woman died while trying to rescue her 9-year-old daughter, who fell from a boat on Lake Minocqua in Oneida County. The child was rescued by boaters, but the woman, Jaime L. Pontell, disappeared in the water. Her body was found the next day. Pontell was not wearing a life jacket, authorities said. Dauterman said DNR wardens still are trying to learn if the child was wearing a life jacket.
Unsafe boating is not just a Wisconsin problem. Kim Elverum, a boat and water safety coordinator for the Minnesota DNR, said 14 of that states 15 boating deaths involved victims not wearing a life jacket. The one person who wore a life jacket died of internal injuries when the tube he was being pulled on hit a docked pontoon boat.
“If we could convince people to wear (a life jacket), wed cut our fatalities by 80 percent,” Elverum said.
Wisconsin law enforcement officials hope to improve boaters; driving and safety habits by targeting the younger generation. The Mandatory Education Law that was put in place in September 2007 requires people born on or after Jan. 1, 1989, and who are at least 16 years old, to have a DNR boating safety education certificate to operate a motorboat or personal water craft.
Boaters 12 to 15 years old must either have a boating safety certificate or have an adult on board.
Classes are available on the Internet or offered in the community and offer information about the rules and regulations, how to operate a boat, and the importance of safety.
Marathon County Sheriffs Lt. Randy Albert, who oversees the countys boat patrol program, said the department had taught as many as 120 people a year in boater safety classes. The program was discontinued this year for budgetary reasons and as participation numbers dropped because of the popularity of the Internet course, Albert said.
Eye on the water
DNR wardens try to keep an eye on area waterways, looking for intoxicated boat drivers and overloaded boats, and conducting safety checks of watercraft. To help the wardens, the DNR has $1.4 million this year to give to local law enforcement agencies to conduct its own boat patrols.
In 2009, Marathon County officers recorded 207.5 hours for boat patrol by patrolling the water, training, conducting investigations or completing boat-related paperwork, Dauterman said. The county can be reimbursed up to 75 percent for the more than $8,100 it spent on boat patrol.
Lincoln County, which has one recreational officer compared with the multiple officers used by Marathon County, spent almost $15,000 while recording 307.5 hours in 2009.
Albert said the Marathon County Sheriffs Department tries to put officers in areas where there are a number of complaints or high boater traffic, but staffing schedules and the need to respond to calls of greater importance take priority.
“We dont have a set pattern. We pop up here and will pop up there,” Albert said. “If people boat responsibly, they dont have to fear where we are.”
— Everest Herald reporter Amy Ryan contributed to this report.