DNR urges early season boaters to use caution

From the Minnesota DNR

With the ice receding from lakes and rivers at what seems like a near record pace, many boaters and anglers are already launching their boats. There were 400 or more fishing boats reported on the Mississippi River, March 17, on the 12-mile stretch between Lock and Dam Number 3 north of Red Wing to the head of Lake Pepin.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is reminding boaters to take special precautions when enjoying early season boating and fishing. Even though air temperatures have been in the 70s recently, water temperatures are still bone-chilling cold.

“We see it time and time again in Minnesota boating accidents,” said Tim Smalley, DNR boating safety specialist. “A lone boat on a lake capsizes; the victim isn’t wearing a life jacket, has no warning or time to put one on, and drowns due to the effects of cold water.”

Smalley said the key is the life jacket. “A person who suffers swimming failure or loss of consciousness will stay afloat wearing a life jacket, but drown without one. It’s smart for boaters to wear a life vest from the time they enter the boat until they return to shore. There is no time to put one on before a boating accident. It’s been compared to trying to buckle your seat belt before a car crash.”

A 2007 report by the U.S. Coast Guard stated that a boating accident was five times more likely to be fatal if the water was colder than 60 degrees.

“Cold water can kill in ways that you might not expect,” said Smalley. “Nearly everyone knows that immersion in cold water can cause hypothermia – the abnormal lowering of the body’s core temperature. What most don’t know is that victims who experience an unexpected fall overboard suffer initial cold water shock in the first minute, which involuntarily causes them to take a series of big breaths, called hyperventilation. If their head is underwater, they can inhale more than a quart of water and drown immediately if they aren’t wearing a life jacket to keep them afloat.”

The DNR Boat and Water Safety Section recommends boaters check the following items before their first outing of the season:

• Have a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket on board, in good condition and in the proper size and type for each passenger.

• Most boats 16 feet and longer also need one type IV throwable seat cushion or ring buoy in the watercraft.

• Make sure all navigation lights are unobstructed and in working order.

• Make sure fire extinguisher is fully charged – tap the gauge to ensure it isn’t stuck on full.

• Put fresh gear case lube in the lower unit.

• Make sure the steering is the proper tightness.

• Be sure registration numbers are clear and visible and display the current state registration sticker.

• Inspect plastic thru-hull fittings and replace any that have cracked. Look for hoses that have been forced off or split from freezing. Every spring, boats sink at the dock when these problems go undetected.

• Inspect fuel fittings and hoses; replace if cracked or showing other signs of stress or age.

• Get fresh batteries for portable electronic gear – radios, GPS units, flashlights.

• Check lights on the boat and trailer. Inspect trailer tires for wear and inflate properly. Check the trailer frame for rust spots; inspect the wheel bearings and re-pack if necessary. Test the winch.

• Engine or drive oil that is creamy brown or gray has water in it and a mechanic should find the source of the leak before starting the engine.

• Update navigational chart inventory. Channel markers and buoys change and GPS units can fail.

• Review boat insurance policy and update coverage if necessary. Many insurance companies offer a discount to boaters who have taken a boating safety course.

• Check prop for nicks and dings.

• Be sure the drain plug is installed before launching.

• Take a boating safety course.

Use caution launching boats

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wants early season boaters to know that conditions at ramps may make boat launching a challenge.

Due to this year’s early ice out, DNR crews are faced with the need to inspect, repair and prepare launch ramps and access sites much earlier than anticipated. Many launch ramps have also been damaged by ice action, which is an annual occurrence. Launch ramp repairs and dock installations have started statewide and should be completed by the May 12 fishing opener.

Boaters can help by being prepared to inspect the ramp above and below the water to ensure it is in good condition prior to launching.

“Regardless of the time of year, it’s always a good idea to check the condition of the ramp prior to launching to ensure there are no hazardous conditions present that may impede access or cause damage to equipment,” said Nancy Stewart, public access program coordinator for the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division. “In addition, many lakes statewide are experiencing low water levels, which may also make launching a boat more difficult.”

Boaters should take extra time and effort when launching their boat this spring to ensure they have a safe and enjoyable boating experience:

• Check the condition of the ramp to ensure it will accommodate the launch of the watercraft.

• Make sure watercraft is water worthy prior to heading out on the water.

• Have hip boots or waders available in case there is a need to enter the water to help guide the boat and trailer, especially where docks are not available.

• Lower the motor only after being assured there is sufficient water depth.

• Watch for free floating ice sheets and other floating obstructions that may be present.

Boaters also are reminded to observe all laws aimed at preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species, including emptying all water from bait containers and bilges, and leaving drain plugs removed while transporting a boat. The DNR also points out that while the early spring has brought unseasonable warmth, water temperatures will remain quite cold for some time yet, so wearing a life jacket is strongly recommended.

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