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Boating safety standards tested on Lake Erie

In a matter of seconds, a sunny day on the lake boating, sailing or canoeing can turn into a nightmare with  heartbreaking loss. That kind of loss will last a lifetime for Phyllis Kopytko. 

Kopytko, who lives in Florida, recalls that day 22 years ago when she and her husband Bob were fishing on Table Rock Lake in Missouri. An extra seat on the boat popped up and everyone, including the captain, was startled. All three went overboard and were slashed by the propeller as the boat swept by in what’s called the "circle of death."

Her husband died, she lost her left arm and the captain died as well.

The couple were celebrating their anniversary and were avid, trained boaters.

“So, it wasn’t that we did not know about these things, but it’s the proverbial: 'It won’t happen to us.' That’s what boaters have in [their] minds, that they’re invincible," she said.

Her experience shows just how dangerous boating can be for boaters of any experience level.

To help reduce deaths and injuries on the water, the U.S. Coast Guard has funded the National On-Water Standards Project. The goal: to foster a safer experience by creating national hands-on training standards for sail boats, power boats and boats powered by people.


Project facilitator Brian Dorval said, “Once they’ve had the training using skills-based training, they’re much more ready to actually operate the boat on the water. That, in combination with knowledge, makes a much safer boater.”

Testing has already taken place for the draft national standards for power boating and human-propelled boats. Testing for sailboat standards took place this week on the eastern end of Lake Erie at the Buffalo Yacht Club.

T.J. Wright, a sailing instructor at the yacht club, volunteered to help with the testing. On Thursday he was on a power boat, following a test subject operating a dinghy. The subject's task was to practice turning the dinghy over after a capsizing.

“I coach a lot of racing, I do a lot of entry level sailing and I’ll definitely use the national standards to help bring people up to that safe level,” Wright said. “I think the tools the national standard are creating ... are going to be really helpful in terms of building a better curriculum.”

According to the Coast Guard there were 4,158 documented accidents in 2015, including 626 deaths and 2,613 injuries. And 71 percent of the deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not have safety instruction.


Capt. Tom Boross, chief of the Coast Guard's Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety, said the number one contributing factor in accidents and deaths on the water is alcohol.

“Every third day in the U.S. we lose someone in a drunk boating fatality, every third day we lose at least one soul in the U.S. because there are either drunk boaters on the water or drunk operators operating boats,” he said.

Sometimes accidents or mishaps happen because the boaters just aren’t thinking. Anthony Scime, manager at the C-ME Marine store in Buffalo, said beginner boaters are so excited to hit the water that sometimes safety takes a back seat.

“It’s always last on the list, let’s put it that way. If they have kids, yeah they are usually concerned about getting life jackets for their kids and things like that, but what they don’t realize that there’s four different agencies out on the water waiting to give you tickets,” he said, referring to the Coast Guard, the Sheriff, the state troopers and Auxiliary Coast Guard. “I’ve had people come in saying they’ve been stopped three times in one day by all different agencies.”

For more information about the project visit http://www.onwaterstandards.org/

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