If you own a boat, do you ever wonder if it's as safe as you think it is?
The Savannah River Sail & Power Squadron offers free safety checks of vessels to ensure that they are water-worthy.
Local squadron Cmdr. Barry Sroka, who oversees the organization, is careful to let people know that they shouldn't worry about getting in trouble if they fail the test. The organization, he noted, is more like an advocate for boaters who want to make sure they meet state and federal requirements.
"We will not fail them. We just won't give them a sticker," Sroka said of the decal given to boaters who pass a vessel safety check. "We will not take what we've seen and report them. That's not our duty. Our duty is to try to lead them, rather than punish them."
The local branch is a unit of the United States Power Squadrons, which was founded in 1956 to help boaters stay safe and get the most out of their experience. Four individuals -- Ed Leibfarth, Butch Rachal, Audie Harris and Paulette Harris-Holmes -- perform most of the vessel safety checks, offered year-round at the boater's convenience.
"Contact us and we will actually arrange to meet you at a marina, or we can even go to your house," Sroka said.
The organization also offers boating safety courses, typically one in the spring and one in the fall.
The vessel safety check involves looking for items that are required by state and federal regulations, as well as for items that the organization recommends boaters to have on board.
In cases when authorities might have to board a boat for some reason, the decal for successful completion lets the authorities know that the boater has made an attempt to be as safe as possible, Sroka said.
In addition, Sroka stressed that many boat insurers offer discounts for those who participate in either boating safety courses or vessel safety checks.
"Obviously, all insurance companies want to reduce the amount they have to pay," he said. "So, they look at two things. One, they know the person knows what they're doing, and two, the boat is safe to go out on the water."
Sroka said that, typically, safety checks might uncover one or two minor issues that are easily fixed.
However, sometimes those checking the boats find major issues.
"If we go out and see a boat in disrepair, we tell the person, 'You're not going to get your sticker, and you're probably going to get stopped,' " Sroka said. "There are life safety issues, even on the Savannah River and Clarks Hill (Lake)."
A past commander with the organization, Leibfarth said people buy a boat to have fun and might not think about potential hazards.
"They don't think about the things that go wrong," he said. "We're trying to provide a resource to eliminate that."
Leibfarth said one issue the Coast Guard harps on is the correct use of life jackets. It's not enough just to buy them and have them available, he noted.
"People will buy life jackets and just leave them in plastic wrappers," he said. "It's a good idea when somebody gets on the boat to assign a life jacket and have them fitted.
"An emergency is not the time to be fitting out a life jacket."
Preferably, boaters should wear life jackets at all times.
One alternative to bulky life jackets is inflatable ones that either inflate automatically once they hit the water or inflate when the wearer pulls a cord.
Leibfarth said one safety tip he offers for local boaters is to pay particular attention to the weather.
"A lot of safety is common sense, but people get excited and want to go out and do something," he said. "Watch out for weather to the west. If dark clouds are coming, maybe it's time to head home."
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