OKALOOSA ISLAND — Memorial Day is just around the corner, and as Okaloosa County gears up for the influx of visitors, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reminds people to be careful when they are on their boats on the water.
The FWC teamed up with the Coast Guard and Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday to talk about boater safety and conduct a mock search-and-rescue.
The first thing boaters should do to stay safe is to have a life jacket. Although it seems like a no-brainer, FWC public information officer Robert Ramos said a lot of people don’t think about it, especially if they’re going to Crab Island.
“Quite simply, lifejackets save lives,” he said at Coast Guard Station Destin. “We’re always going to be looking for life jackets that fit every one in the boat.”
Ramos said officers will conduct safety inspections at random to make sure boats are properly equipped and safe for everyone on board. If a vessel is 26 feet or smaller, children under 6 years of age — including infants — must wearing a life jacket at all times.
“This isn’t the movie "Titanic" where you have moments in between to tell people how you feel,” said Brian Rehwinkel, the FWC's boating and waterways outreach and education coordinator. “In real life, everything happens in the blink of an eye and your life jacket could be the difference between life and death.
Paying attention to your surroundings is also critical to staying safe on a boat, especially as boat traffic increases.
“It’s very different than being on a roadway and there are lanes around you,” Ramos said. “When you’re in a boat, there aren’t any designated lanes, so it’s very important to be aware.”
According to Ramos, the most common cause of boating accidents in Florida is operators not paying attention.
In Okaloosa County 2018, there were 16 boating accidents and seven injuries. Ramos and his team hope to see that number decline this year.
The FWC, Coast Guard and the Sheriff's Office conducted the search-and-rescue demonstration a few miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Capt. Randall Brooks portrayed an operator who had been thrown off his boat. Wearing a life jacket and equipped with flares, Brooks had to tread water while waiting for rescuers to find him. Thanks to a Personal Locator Beacon, he was located within minutes.
Rehwinkel said he highly recommends every boater to have a PLB on their life jacket and an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon on their boat.
“PLB’s take the search out of search and rescue,” he said. “They send a GPS signal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who sends it to the Coast Guard who can locate the person in distress.”
When boaters buy a PLB or EPIRB, they must register it with their information to allow the Coast Guard to know exactly who they’re looking for in an emergency situation. Telling your family and friends the details of your boating trip can help in case of an emergency.
For more boating safety information, visit the FWC’s website at www.myfwc.com