Sgt. Carey Pehl and the six deputies in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department Boating Safety Unit expect to meet the usual mix of fishermen, water skiers and recreational boaters on the water during the July Fourth holiday and the rest of the summer.
And with the added people on the water, there’s an added level of danger.
Pehl said most issues — such as going too fast near docks or approaching too close to popular beaches — can be resolved with a warning. But he has little tolerance for safety violations.
“My guys are pretty rigid when it comes to safety equipment,” he said. “If you don’t have a life jacket for every person on board, your voyage will be terminated to the closest safe harbor.”
That’s a point that Pehl — in his third year as the boating unit’s supervisor after his father, Chet, put in 23 years with the unit — can’t stress enough. State law requires a Coast Guard-approved life jacket for everyone in a boat, and all riders 12 and younger must wear those life jackets while onboard.
In spite of that law, Pehl figures every boating-related drowning he has investigated, including two incidents that claimed three lives on the Delta in June, could have been prevented.
None of the men who drowned — including a 66-year-old Stockton man near Louis Park in Stockton on June 11 and two men, ages 37 and 41, on Whiskey Slough on June 16 — was wearing a life jacket.
“There were enough life jackets for everyone that drowned,” he said. “That’s disheartening for us. We get to pick up the life jackets then drag for the bodies.”
Dangers of ignorance
California Department of Boating & Waterways statistics show that July is by far the busiest month of the year for boating accidents, and most of those accidents happen on weekends.
Collisions are most common, with flooding and grounding also high on the list.
While the recent drowning deaths involved experienced boaters, the incidents involving uneducated and inexperienced boaters seem to make an impression.
At Tracy Oasis Marina on Grant Line Canal, co-owner Terry Flowers recalls a time four years ago when 10 people piled into a 12-foot aluminum boat and four of them drowned when it sank.
“The four that died had no idea how to swim,” he said. “There were no life jackets on the boat.”
“People are allowed to buy boats, operate boats and not run under the same restrictions as you have if you own a car,” Flowers added. “It doesn’t make any sense. You have to be responsible, and unfortunately that’s just not how it works. Unfortunately, people die because of it.”
Flowers has spent 20 years at the Oasis Marina and said he could tell who would have a good day on the Delta just by watching people launch their boats from his ramp.
“The fishermen by far are the most experienced — especially bass fishermen. Least amount of problems, and they understand the law on the water,” he said. “We watch them on the launch ramp, and they get their boats in and out of the water quickly and simply, because they know what they’re doing.”
This week, Flowers and his wife, Korinne, who has been at the Oasis for 40 years, saw a man damage his boat trailer so badly he couldn’t get his boat out of the water. That boat remains in storage at the marina.
“The bad ones start out bad and only get worse,” Flowers said.
Pehl and his deputies write reports for every crash, grounding and sinking on the Delta in San Joaquin County.
Their jobs are the same as any other deputies. They watch for hazards; respond to medical issues; pull over boaters for operational, safety or equipment violations; and make arrests, mostly for drunken boating.
California law does not prohibit open containers in boats — merely having a beer in hand won’t get a boat operator arrested — but the same 0.08 percent blood-alcohol limit that applies to motorists on the road will also land a boat driver in jail.
Deputies also can also administer a sobriety test on a boater as the basis for an arrest. The law applies to personal watercraft such as jet skis, too, and water skiers can be arrested if they’re over the 0.08 limit.
Last year, the department made 11 boating-under-the-influence arrests on the Delta between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It made 20 arrests the year before. In 2006, the boating unit hauled in 115 drunken boaters.
“We do find that a lot of occupants on the boat have had a lot to drink, but the operators have been pretty good the past few years,” Pehl said. “However, we are now seeing designated drivers. It’s usually the pregnant female. Even without that, we see designated drivers going up.”
The patrol will also swing by beaches that are known to be popular.
Pehl said that Ski Beach on Middle River near Woodward Ferry gets plenty of activity, and the San Joaquin River near 14-Mile Slough and Windmill Cove is a regular gathering spot for skiers. Deputies often find unplanned gatherings where 300 to 400 people congregate.
“If we’re visible and we can prevent something, we’re better off than if we have to respond to something tragic,” Pehl said, adding that inexperience and lack of awareness are the most common problems among boaters.
“We call it situational awareness, where they’re going down a channel and they’re not looking around behind them to know where they are and where other boats are,” he said. “Generally, the ones we contact have some experience issues. Seldom do we find a boater who has intentionally made a violation.”
The boating unit’s busiest day this summer will likely be Tuesday, July 3, when hundreds of boaters are expected to gather at Mandeville Tip across from Venice Island to watch Barron Hilton’s annual Independence Day fireworks show, which is a day early this year.
The U.S. Coast Guard sends in an 85-foot boat each year to the show to act as a command post. Pehl expects his deputies, all trained as emergency medical responders, will deal mostly with accidents and medical issues.
“All of the boats are equipped similar to what a fire truck would have. Backboards, oxygen — the basic stuff is on all the boats,” Pehl said. “On major holiday weekends, (American Medical Response) will staff our boats with at least one paramedic on a boat. Many times, they’ll staff us with two, so we’ll have two boats that have the paramedic and two deputies on board for any medical issues. We’ll put them to work.”
Lessons to learn
The local marina operators said boaters can learn state laws and safety regulations by taking a few classes, usually hosted by the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Ron Mize, the owner of River’s End Marina near Mountain House, said the auxiliary drops by his marina occasionally to help boaters learn about proper equipment and procedures.
“These guys come out on a volunteer basis to offer a free service, giving safety checks for boats. They let them know if they don’t have enough life jackets or throw floats,” he said, adding that marinas like his also have stores where boaters can buy equipment.
“We’re able to accommodate them so they don’t go out and get a big ticket.”
Terry and Korinne Flowers said it’s easy to sign up for classes. Their frustration is that boaters aren’t required to take them. Even when the Flowerses offered classes at the marina, there were no takers.
“I think the requirement of boating safety would be a good step, but I think the overall answer would be licensing, and insurance,” Terry Flowers said.