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The warm weather has arrived, and with it comes an influx of tourists to the area and a lot of folks powering up the old boat for a cruise on the Lowcountry waterways.
Boating can be a lot of fun, but remember the old adage: It's better to be safe than sorry.
It doesn't take much for a fun time out on the water to turn into something far worse. On May 2, Shelly Burgado of Bluffton was seriously injured after falling from a boat on the May River and being struck by its propeller. She suffered severe cuts to her face and legs and still is recovering at the rehabilitation center of Savannah Memorial University Medical Center.
Burgado's grandfather, John Rhodes, said he thinks her injuries could've been much less severe had the boat she was riding on been equipped with propeller guards. These devices cover the propellers so if a collision occurs, only minor damage is done.
But even propeller guards might not have helped Burgado. Mike Willis, S.C. Department of Natural Resources agency
spokesperson, said propeller guards aren't really designed to protect people. They are intended to protect propellers from rocks, stumps and other things in the water that could cause damage. Still, Rhodes said his research shows the guards can protect people as well as sea creatures.
Another recent boating accident in the area left Will Coxe of John's Island with serious injuries, as well. On Jan. 31, Coxe was enjoying a day of boating and fishing with a friend near Hilton Head Island when he slipped and fell off the boat.
The boat started doing circles around him and ended up running over his face. He said an off-duty EMT saw what was going on and took care of him until an ambulance arrived. The accident left Coxe with a broken jaw and shattered cheek bones. He was in the hospital for a week and has undergone four surgeries.
Coxe's advice? Always wear a kill switch; they save lives. Kill switches are used to turn off a boat in an emergency. A line can be attached to the driver's life jacket or swimsuit and to the switch. That way, if the driver is thrown any significant distance from the steering column, the line will throw the kill switch, and the boat's engine will turn off.
"If I had that on when I fell out, the boat would've cut off immediately," Coxe said. "And I would've been cold, wet and embarrassed. Instead, I'm broken up and almost dead."
Willis of DNR strongly suggests taking a DNR-approved boater safety course. He said the courses, which usually cover safety equipment and the rules of navigation, are easy and free. If boaters would rather take a course online, there is an Internet-based safety course with a nominal fee.
Willis said DNR strongly discourages the use of alcohol while operating a boat. It's legal to have beer and wine aboard, but the law says the operator of a boat cannot be impaired or intoxicated. DNR recommends having a designated driver on the boat.
DNR also recommends boaters file a float plan ahead of time. This could be as simple as telling a spouse or friend where you're going and when you're coming back. That way if you don't make it back by a certain time, they know where to look for you.
THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
Willis said boaters should be sure to have on hand all of the safety equipment required by law. DNR provides boating safety guides, and that information is available online at www.dnr.sc.gov/boating.
State law requires the following safety equipment to be aboard all boats:
360-degree stern light on the boat.
The law only requires life jackets be worn in two circumstances -- anyone aboard a personal watercraft and anyone under the age of 12 in a boat less than 16-feet long. Others are not required to wear one. But Willis said, "Your survival rate goes way up if you're wearing a life jacket."
Rhodes is not sure if his granddaughter was wearing a life jacket at the time of the accident. He said he doesn't even know if there were life jackets aboard, even though they are required by law. He is awaiting an official inventory of what was aboard the boat that day.
DNR also recommends boaters have the following aboard boats:
Weather also contributes to accidents. Willis said boaters should pay attention to the weather forecast before going out on a boat. He suggests they get projected wave and sea conditions and not go out in the event of an oncoming storm or predicted high winds.
"Weather does lead to a lot of boating accidents, and injuries and fatalities," Willis said.
But Willis said one of the leading causes of accidents is people just not paying attention. "It's important for the operator to stay alert and aware at all times," he said. "And that means being aware of other boats in the area."