By Ben Olson
With the heat of July and August comes an increase in boater traffic on Lake Pend Oreille. While boating with family and friends on a hot summer day may seem to be a carefree activity, each season provides powerful reminders of how big and unpredictable this lake can be when a sudden storm comes over the mountains.
The Bonner County Sheriff’s Office has a Marine Division dedicated to keeping the heavy influx of summer boaters safe on the water. There are six sheriff’s boats in the county operated by a staff of 15 deputies. Five boats are in operation this season, with one at Priest Lake and the others stationed at different locations on Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River.
“We deal with some interesting things up here,” Lt. Douglas McGeachy told the Reader. “We have deep water in Lake Pend Oreille, and the weather that can roll through can create some hazardous conditions, so it’s nice to take a local class where we tackle some of these local issues.”
The Sheriff’s Department conducts a boater safety course a few times each season for anyone who would like to learn basic boating laws and safety. The classes are free to the public and open to residents of any state. The course will teach boaters about safety on the water and the requirements and equipment needed. They also cover basic boating laws and the rules of the road with regard to navigation and boater courtesy.
McGeachy said the Marine Division encourages every boater to attend the free courses to get a better handle on boating safely.
The free boater safety courses will be offered on July 25, Aug. 8, Aug. 22, Sept. 12 and Sept. 26. All classes start at 9 a.m. at the Marine Division office at 4001 N. Boyer Ave. in Sandpoint. Some boaters may even see a reduction in their insurance upon completion of the class. To RSVP, call 208-265-8417 ext. 3125.
For McGeachy, there are two issues that rise to the surface when discussing safety on Lake Pend Oreille: life jacket usage and wake zone violations.
“It’s important to wear life jackets and make sure that life jackets are readily accessible,” he said. “We had our first fatality on the lake a couple weeks ago. If you look at the first five fatalities we’ve had in the state this year, nobody was wearing a life jacket. It doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome would’ve been different, but it gives people a chance to survive. People carry them on boats, but if you end up in the water quickly with no time to put it on, that makes it tough.”
McGeachy said the person who died from the capsized boat incident in June wasn’t wearing a life jacket when their boat went over in large waves.
“A few people were able to grab floating life jackets, but couldn’t put them on in the water, especially not in three-foot seas,” he said. “Life jackets are really important, and that includes for people on non-motorized vessels, such as kayaks or stand up paddleboards.”
McGeachy said wake zone violations are another hot topic. There should be no wake thrown within 200 feet of any shoreline, dock, pier, bridge or other structure — as well as any person in the water. There should also be no wake within 50 feet of any other vessel on the water.
“While a big part of the wake zone conversation is shore erosion and property damage to docks and boats, another thing to consider is when you get that close to shore, people are swimming off of docks and doing other sports,” McGeachy said.
All boaters on the lake and river are subject to a safety inspection conducted by one of the sheriff’s boats. During these inspections, McGeachy said boat owners should be prepared to show they have the basic carriage requirements on board as required by law. These include life jackets on board for all passengers, a Type IV throwable PFD like a square cushion or ring that can be tossed to someone in the water, a noise making device like an air horn or whistle and a working fire extinguisher. Also, the marine deputies look for valid registration and invasive species stickers, and small items like ski flags and engine cut-off switches.
McGeachy said one of the most useful mentalities to have when boating on the lake is common courtesy for fellow boaters.
“If there was common courtesy, we wouldn’t need to be out there most of the time — on the road or the water,” he said. “Be a good neighbor out there. Don’t drive too close to shore or blare your music too loud. Be aware of your surroundings. Those will impact not only safety but quality of life,” he said. “Our fatality was tragic. The more we can try to educate people to avoid those kinds of outcomes is the ultimate goal.”
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