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Boating Safety Class in Leesburg




LEESBURG - Leesburg boater Jeanette Wedge shuddered when she thought of the recent Singleton family tragedy on Lake Yale, when a disconnected bilge pump caused a boat to sink and two children to drown.

"It's sad because it's so preventable," she said. "If they only would have taken the course, it might have helped."

Jeanette is one of 76 members of the Harris Chain Power Squadron who are reaching out to educate the public about boating safety.

The squadron will conduct a one-day boating safety course once a month at the Leesburg Cultural Arts Center on Dixie Highway. The eight-hour class costs $45. While teaching safety lessons, symbol recognition and docking techniques, the class will give boaters state certification and a safety certificate that could provide up to a 10-percent insurance discount, according to executive officer Kerry Kline.

The squadron members, instructors and inspectors are volunteers committed to increasing safety on the water. Kline, a former resident of South Florida, witnessed several boating-accident deaths. At least one death was a child who had been riding at the bow of the boat.

"You can't be riding the bow like in 'Titanic,' said Kline, "The boat can hit a wake, the kid can fall and the boat will run over them."

As of Dec. 20, Florida had 66 boating fatalities in 2006, according to Lt. Ed Cates, assistant boating safety coordinator for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The majority of deaths occurred in lakes and ponds in clear, calm water on smaller, unstable boats.

"Most of the fatalities were drowning occurring out of boats less than 18 feet" long, Cates said.

The reason? "They weren't wearing their life jackets," said Cates.

In a story in April, the Star-Banner reported that Marion County boaters experienced one of their deadliest years on the water in 2004, when there were six accidents, two fatalities, six injuries and more than $250,000 in damage. In 2005, by contrast, Marion County saw only two accidents and no fatalities while the rest of the state was suffering through a near record-setting year that included 80 deaths on Florida waterways.

In the past two months, three people have drowned in boating accidents in Lake County.

Statistics show that 90 percent of the deaths involved people with no boater education.

The upcoming course in Leesburg is even open to children.

"We're not trying to turn anyone onto a perfect boater, just a safer boater, so we can all enjoy the water out there and be sensitive to everyone's needs," Kline explained. "I think if we do that, bottom line is, everybody will have a much better time out in the water, we'll all come back safely and we'll boat another day."

The squadron also offers safety inspections at area docks and marinas at least once each month and is willing to meet groups who cannot come to them. During the inspection, the squadron checks safety equipment, health kits and lights, and coaxes people toward furthering their boater education with the squadron, which offers classes on topics such as navigation, piloting and weather.

Thoughts returned to the Singleton tragedy.

"The sad part is we could have helped him so easily," said Jeanette's husband, Mike Wedge, education officer of the squadron. He said Singleton could have been warned of the broken bilge pump during a safety inspection.

"We do it for free. We'll come to you and be glad to do it because it's nice to know, maybe you'll save a life," Jeanette Wedge said. In 2006, the group got more aggressive and performed 250 area inspections, up from 100 the year before.

Upon passing inspections, boaters receive a decal indicating their boat has passed. The first inspections for 2007 are planned from noon to 3 p.m. Jan. 28 in Buzzard Beach in Tavares, where U.S. 441 crosses Dora Canal.

"Our inspection sticker shows law enforcement that the boater cared enough to have a voluntary inspection done and, at least at the time it was given that sticker, it met all of the requirements of the law in common sense and safety," Mike Wedge said.

Besides checking safety equipment, boat inspections could prove valuable in refreshing a boater's knowledge and making boaters aware of recent changes to boating laws, said Lt. Cates.

For example, a seat cushion was once acceptable as a flotation device, but now laws require each person in the boat to have a fitted and wearable life jacket. The jackets must be Coast Guard approved, and those for small children must be sized and fitted appropriately. Life Jackets for children now have handles and understraps, which allow a child to be tugged through the water in the case of an emergency.

Eight years into their retirement, The Villages residents Mike and Carol Garvin decided to buy a 14-person pontoon boat. Because he enjoys taking his softball team members and neighbors out to fish and enjoy the water, Mike decided to join the squadron.

"If you take six or eight neighbors out there, you want to be knowledgeable," he said.

In the class, he was surprised to learn that, among other things, he was responsible for the wake his boat leaves behind as it cuts through the water.

"That means, if I'm flying along and my wake is really big and it causes damage, that's my problem. If a Ski-Doo gets behind me and starts jumping my wake and gets hurt, then that's my problem, not his," Garvin said.

Last week, Garvin docked his boat in Leesburg and safety inspector Jim Ekensten reviewed a 15-point checklist. Among other things, the inspector checked to see if he had 14 life jackets readily available, at least one emergency-signal device such as a flare, a clean bilge, a sound device such as a foghorn, a fire extinguisher and proper ventilation.

Garvin's boat passed.
But even if they pass, boaters who don't know enough about safety could blow themselves up.

Squadron commander and instructor Joe Rzewuski reads of at least two boat explosions each year caused by bad fueling procedures.

"They think the best thing to do is open all the doors and fuel a boat," he said. "That's the worst thing because all the fumes sink to the bilge. And now you have a potential explosion. If you ever had a spark, it would blow up. Just a teaspoon of fuel in the bilge will blow. It's the vapors. So you normally close everything up, fill it and then open up the boat after to vent it."