A splash of safety

BoCo Marine Division, other local officials encourage boaters to take advantage of educational opportunities

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

As North Idahoans prepare for a summer on the water by dewinterizing their boats and stocking up on sunscreen and snacks, the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office Marine Division has been performing its own preparations, getting ready to make sure this year’s boating season is as safe as it can be.

Marine deputies patrol the lake in the summer of 2017. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert.

Outside of the summer season, Marine Division personnel perform maintenance on all BCSO vessels. Before the boating season begins, all personnel attend a two-week in-service training program, while newly hired deputies also undergo an 80-hour Marine Academy program.

Those deputies then spend the summer months patrolling area waters, “looking for safety violations, performing boat safety inspections, providing educational information and responding to calls for service,” according to Lt. Doug McGeachy, head of the Bonner County Marine Division. 

McGeachy said there are currently six patrol vessels on Lake Pend Oreille, the Pend Oreille River and Priest Lake. Deputies can also patrol the many other lakes and rivers in Bonner County, using smaller boats or personal watercraft. The department added thermal cameras to two of its vessels this year, which could help locate boats and people in the dark or during times of low visibility.

McGeachy said that common violations on local waterways include failure to display a ski flag when a water skier, surfer or tuber is downed; excessive noise from engines or stereos; and “carriage equipment violations” — failure to have life jackets, fire extinguishers and other required equipment onboard.

Marine deputies also keep an eye on non-motorized water recreationists, who have their own set of laws to follow.

“For paddle sport enthusiasts, it is common to see people on the water who do not have a personal floatation device or a sound-producing device (whistle),” McGeachy said. “Our deputies carry and routinely pass out whistles to members of the public to enhance safety.”

Many community complaints come from alleged wake zone violations — a hot topic along the shores of North Idaho’s waterways in recent years. The Lakes Commission, an advisory board responsible for advocating for local lakes and rivers, has been leading the charge in educating the public on why it’s so important to comply with wake laws.

Large wakes can cause property damage to both structures and the shoreline’s natural buffers, speeding up erosion. As wake surfing and other wake-dependent, motorized sports have taken off, the Lakes Commission has spread campaigns like, “Avoid the Shore, Ride the Core,” and “Love Your Lake? Watch Your Wake.”

“Relieving tension between boaters and shoreline property owners is beneficial for all,” the commission states on its website. “Thank you! Be safe and have fun!”

Under Bonner County Code, no-wake zones for lakes and the Pend Oreille River extend 200 feet from the nearest shore, structure or person in the water, and 50 feet from surrounding vessels. As for other local rivers, the no-wake zone is shortened to 100 feet.

According to Executive Director Molly McCahon, the Lakes Commission has a Boater’s Guide available for Lake Pend Oreille and Priest Lake. These brochures are free to the public and include a map of the lakes, as well as information on boating safety, protecting water quality, the local fishery and water resources. Those who would like a map or, as a business, would like to hand them out to clientele, call 208-265-4568 or email [email protected].

Beyond enforcement on the water and educational campaigns across the region, boaters can take their recreational responsibility into their own hands by taking a free boating safety course. When asked what he would say if he had every local boater in a room, McGeachy’s response was simple: “Please, please, please take a boating safety and/or paddlesport safety course.”

“These courses are not required in Idaho, but members of the community can learn valuable information about safety on the water to include navigation rules — ‘rules of the road’ — carriage requirements, navigation lighting requirements and other safety measures that will keep them safe on the water,” he added.

Courses can be attended online or in person, with the BCSO Marine Division offering a handful of free, in-person courses this spring and summer.

Remaining courses for 2021 include Saturday, June 12 at the BCSO Marine Division office (4001 N. Boyer Road) in Sandpoint; Saturday, June 26 at Priest Lake Search and Rescue (81 Cavanaugh Bay Road) in Coolin; and Saturdays, July 10 and Aug. 7 at the BCSO Marine Division office. All classes begin at 9 a.m. and will last about six hours, so organizers encourage students to bring lunch.

Those who wish to know more or sign up for these in-person boating safety courses can call BCSO at 208-263-8417 ext. 3125, or email [email protected].

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