Don't scarf a barbecue sandwich while doing 30 mph on a jet ski.
That's a good safety tip to start with for the hundreds of people expected to hit Thurmond Lake, the Savannah River and other area waterfronts this July 4th weekend. According to a series of safety recommendations issued earlier this summer by the Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there are a few other important things to remember before spending Independence Day in the sun.
Key among the USACE recommendations for enjoying a safe day on the water is the use of a life jacket.
"Most of our drownings occur because people have fallen out of boats without wearing a personal floatation device," said USACE Chief of Public Affairs James Parker. "Or they drown from swimming and getting themselves into trouble in an area that's too deep and too far from land for them."
The majority of drowning victims are males ranging from the mid-teens and into the mid-40s, Parker said.
Current low water levels caused by an ongoing drought exacerbate the danger to life jacket-free swimmers.
Gerald Manning, 5, always wears a life jacket when he is around the water at Clarks Hill Lake.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
"The bottom features now during a drought are not the same bottom features as when the lake is full," Parker said.
Essentially, people who think they are familiar with a particular swimming spot may actually be in an area with a greater lake bottom drop-off. This can lead to disorientation and panic.
Just wearing a life jacket is not enough. Personal floatation devices are not one-size-fits-all, so it is important that a jacket is properly fitted. A jacket that does not fasten correctly can slip off in the water.
"People complain about them being too tight," Parker said. "If it's too tight the thing to do is go out and buy one that fits properly. Just like a lot of people say, 'I don't like to wear my seat belt when I'm driving my car because it wrinkles my suit.' Well, do you want to be a little uncomfortable or do you want to be dead?"
Boaters and personal watercraft operators - jet skis riders - should be especially aware of changes in the water level. Objects that are safely submerged when the lake is at full-pool become dangerous obstacles when the level drops.
"If you've got a tree stump that's two inches below the surface and your boat draws a foot of water, you're going to run into it. It's going to tear out the bottom of your boat, it could create a capsize and throw people out of the boat.
"It just makes sense that when you've got an extreme situation like the drought, you just pay attention to what you're doing. And that would hold particularly true to jet skiers, who tend to travel at a higher rate of speed anyway and tend to travel in shallower areas."
The USACE reminds personal watercraft riders that their vehicles react differently to water conditions than boats. All operators of PWCs and boats should be aware of basic operations and applicable state laws before hitting the water.
Jay Bremer uses all the proper safety equipment while skiing at Clarks Hill Lake.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Drinking alcohol while swimming or boating is another danger. Boating under the influence is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 12 months in prison, according to Melissa Cummings from the public affairs office of the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, . People convicted of a BUI - the legal Blood Alcohol Content limit is .08, although there is a zero tolerance limit of .02 for offenders below 21-years-old - lose the privilege of operating a boat until completion of a BUI, alcohol or drug abuse risk reduction program.
"We're not saying that you have to be inebriated," Parker said. "Just like law enforcement officers say, you shouldn't drink anything and drive. - Any amount of alcohol that you drink creates some impairment. Driving a boat is like driving a car - you should have all of your faculties when you do it."
Even after you strap on your life jacket and designate a sober driver, the most important element of having a safe good time at the lake or river is to not let your brain get waterlogged.
"A lot of this has to do with common sense," Parker said. "We all think, 'Gosh, no one would be silly enough to do that.' But people are that silly all the time."
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