Safety concerns surface at lakes

Ed Bradney has been a recreational boater for nearly 30 years.

This weekend he will be out on Clinton Lake in his speedy power boat, enjoying the last holiday weekend of the summer. And thousands of others will be doing the same at other lakes across Kansas and the nation.

“The people you see at Clinton, it’s like a social club,” said Bradney, a Lawrence resident. “You have a certain group of people you see all the time.”

With above-average crowds expected at Clinton and Perry lakes over the long weekend, officials are reminding end-of-summer revelers to be cautious on the water.

While there have been no deaths at Clinton Lake, it has been a deadly year on lakes across Kansas. So far in 2003, seven people have lost their lives on Kansas lakes, according to state records.

All of last year, there were five such fatalities in Kansas.

Among this year’s lake deaths was a Mission woman, killed last month when a house boat and a fish-and-ski boat collided on Perry Lake. That incident is still under investigation.

Stretched thin

About 50 conservation officers from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks patrol the state’s lakes.

Bunnie Watkins, natural resources management specialist at Perry Lake, helps Hailey Engelke, 3, left, and Morgan Kubick, 3, both of Perry, during a water safety demonstration. Recreation officials stressed safety Thursday before the long Labor Day weekend.

Those officers, however, are responsible for more than just the 24 federal reservoirs in Kansas. They also are supposed to keep track of boaters and fishermen on the state’s three navigable rivers — Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas — as well as county and state fishing lakes.

“It gets stretched — we have to set priorities,” Wildlife and Parks boating administrator Cheryl Swayne said of the enforcement staff.

Clyde Umscheid, who supervises six officers in a five-county area in northeastern Kansas, including Douglas County, said being busy was nothing new.

“We’re used to it,” he said.

This Labor Day weekend, the priority will be the lakes. Umscheid and his officers will be conducting select enforcement operations at Clinton and Hillsdale Lake in Miami County.

They will keep a special lookout for intoxicated boat operators and improper use, or lack of, life jackets and flotation devices.

Unlike vehicle drivers, Kansas boat drivers legally can drink alcoholic beverages while operating their crafts, though operating a boat while intoxicated is against the law. The legal intoxication limit is a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent, just as it is for motorists. Skippers convicted of being under the influence face sentences of up to a year in jail, a fine up to $500 or both.

Bradney, who said he spent most of his water time at Clinton Lake, said boaters there were better behaved than boaters at other lakes he had visited.

“The worst lake I’ve ever been on isn’t in Kansas,” Bradney said, politely declining to name names. “Some lakes are overly crowded and there is a lot of drinking.”

Umscheid agreed. For example, Perry Lake has more of a reputation than Clinton as a party lake, Umscheid and others said.

“It’s a bigger lake and you have more and bigger boats,” Umscheid said about Perry Lake, where he has worked in the past.

Water ‘motorcycles’

Conservation officers continue to hear a lot of complaints about personal watercraft — Jet Skis, WaveRunners and the like.

“They are like the motorcycles of the water,” Umscheid said. “They are highly maneuverable and you can turn on a dime.”

If used correctly, they are about the safest of the watercraft, Swayne said. But the easy maneuverability sometimes leads to carelessness, and that makes other boaters nervous.

Gasoline prices hit a national record Thursday, as demand from drivers remained high with the Labor Day holiday approaching.The travel club AAA pegged the national average for regular unleaded gas at $1.74 a gallon Thursday, and few analysts or executives expect gas prices to fall before the end of the holiday weekend.

“Right now people seem to be really stressed out about them,” Swayne said. “They dart around, and boat operators don’t know what they are going to do.”

Moreover, personal watercraft tend to congregate closer to shore so riders can switch off. One personal watercraft on a lake averages seven or more riders during an outing, Swayne said.

State law requires a personal watercraft operator to be at least 16 years old or have an adult with them.

Bradney said he had operated personal watercraft.

“You can be having so much fun that you lose track of what’s around you,” he said.

Gone fishin’

John Swenson doesn’t consider himself a boating enthusiast, but he certainly is a boater.

Swenson has spent hours fishing off a boat at Clinton Lake since the reservoir opened in the mid-1970s. He prefers to avoid crowds on the water.

“I like to get here early in the morning when there aren’t too many people around,” he said.

That attitude is not unusual among anglers, Swayne said.

“A lot of fisherman think that way,” she said. Some fishermen, however, get careless and don’t have the proper floatation devices on their boats.

“They tend to fish in a secluded cove where they are by themselves and then they fall out of the boat and can’t get back in,” Swayne said.

Between 1991 and 1998 there were 44 boating fatalities in Kansas, records show. Of those, 20 of the victims were fishing, including one at Perry in 1998.

Courtesy, common sense

Many of the problems at Clinton and other lakes occur at boat ramps, Umscheid said, when people line up waiting to unload their boats into the water.

“Somebody gets impatient or they think somebody is trying to get in ahead of them,” Umscheid said. “Then you have your fights.”

There are two keys to being safe on the water, Umscheid said.

“Just use common sense and be courteous,” he said.