Coast Guard stepping up safety checks at Jersey Shore

The Coast Guard boards a pleasure boat during a routine safety check near the Atlantic City Marina.
The Coast Guard boards a pleasure boat during a routine safety check near the Atlantic City Marina. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 01, 2012

ATLANTIC CITY - The seasonal onslaught of recreational boating has shifted the Coast Guard into "high alert" at the Jersey Shore. That means more shipboard safety inspections and - pay attention, Captain Morgan - sobriety tests.

"Just like the police on the roads, we never know what we're going to find when we make that stop," Petty Officer Timothy Wilson said last week, moments before boarding one of the agency's 25-foot response vessels for an afternoon check of this resort's inlets, channels, and other waterways.

While much of the Coast Guard's mission centers on search-and-rescue operations and aiding boaters in distress, the agency also is charged with keeping the waterways safe, officials said.

There were 4,588 recreational boating accidents reported nationwide last year, about half involving motorboats, according to the Coast Guard. Their toll: 758 deaths and 3,081 injuries, plus $52 million in property damage.

The number of fatalities was up 14.8 percent from 2010, though it was smaller than in 2009, according to the agency.

When experts examined details surrounding the incidents, they made a startling discovery: 89 percent of the deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had not received boating-safety instruction.

"That's why we so heavily stress that boaters know the rules and understand their vessels before they even go out on the water," said Petty Officer Robert Murray, who performs the daily patrols with Wilson.

On the Intercoastal Waterway near the Golden Nugget Casino on Wednesday, the Coast Guard vessel pulled alongside a 14-foot motorboat registered in New York and, through a bullhorn, informed its four occupants that their craft was about to be boarded.

Unlike police on the roadway, who generally cannot stop a vehicle without cause, the Coast Guard may board any craft, from a sailboat to a freighter, for a spot check.

In an inspection that lasted 15 minutes, Coast Guard personnel found all to be in order: The boat had enough life jackets, a VHF-FM radio, proper signaling devices, and an emergency medical kit. It was allowed to go on its way.

Since 2009, operators of power watercraft in New Jersey have been required to carry a state-issued certification card indicating that they have passed a 60-question boating-safety examination.

But Wilson and Murray still come across boaters without a card or who are ignorant of basic safety regulations. That's scary to experts, who say that most accidents are the result of inexperience, inattention, and use of excessive speed by operators.

To gear up for summer, personnel from the Coast Guard's Atlantic City and Cape May stations participated last weekend in the agency's national Operation Dry Water, conducting sobriety stops and checking safety equipment.

"Having improper lifesaving equipment aboard your vessel not only puts your life at risk, but the lives of all the other people on the water," Murray said.

One of the first - and most basic - things inspectors looked for were life jackets. Nine of the 15 children under age 13 who died while boating last year drowned, according to the Coast Guard.

During Operation Dry Water, a pair of crews from Atlantic City boarded 38 vessels and found two boats in violation. One had no fire extinguisher; the other did not have enough life jackets.

Instead of tickets, which carry penalties of up to $500, operators were issued warnings and their voyages were terminated, officials said.

When boats or their captains are found to be in violation of any safety regulation, it is procedure to tow the vessels to the nearest safe harbor, officials said.

The Coast Guard also was on the lookout for drunken boating. Nationwide last year, 296 accidents were the result of intoxicated operators.

Inspectors perform field sobriety tests - the usual walking a straight line or touching a finger to the nose - in the case of a suspected impaired operator. If they believe an operator's blood alcohol concentration is above the .08 percent legal limit, they will radio the State Police marine unit to come to perform a Breathalyzer test.

No one stopped during Operation Dry Water was cited for boating under the influence.

Random checks often turn up serious issues. In the Port of Newark last week, inspectors boarded the freighter Ville D'Aquarius, which had arrived from the Middle East. During a routine security check, inspectors thought they heard knocking coming from inside cargo containers, which could have indicated there were stowaways aboard. Ultimately, no one was found, officials said.

The Coast Guard made the biggest maritime cocaine bust in U.S. history in 2007 when, during a routine patrol, 20 tons of the drug were spotted on the deck of a freighter 20 miles off Panama.

"I think if you have nothing to hide, you actually welcome the Coast Guard to come aboard and make sure everything is in order," said Frank Scarani of Manalapan, Monmouth County, whose 46-foot ocean yacht, Defiance, was docked last week at Atlantic City's Senator Frank S. Farley State Marina.

"They do a lot of good in cutting down on problems out on the water."


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo

at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.

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