Texans around the state have been taking advantage of the sunshine on the state’s waterways in greater numbers ever since the COVID-19 virus fight sent school students home and some of their parents, too.
And compared to this time last year, drownings are up more than 30 percent, with a recent case in Kerr County added to that tragic list.
Capt. Javier Fuentes of the local TPWD district said, by his count, this year there have been nine drownings across four counties. State statistics say there were 87 children who drowned in Texas in 2019, and 91 the year before.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is reminding everyone to be safe by following basic boating safety precautions and public health guidelines while on the water.
Game Warden Carson Wardlow, one of two assigned to this multi-county TPWD District V, has some advice and precautions gained from four years of on-the-job observations and experience. His partner is Game Warden Brent Biggs.
Following are the most important things for a boat operator and passengers to check and do before boarding any watercraft, Wardlow said.
Check the weather.
“Wind is going to affect a larger motorized boat more than a kayak or paddleboard. But you have to check, to decide if the wind will be too high to be on the water,” Wardlow said.
Check all safety equipment, especially that every person has a life jacket and that they are being worn, not just stored on board.
“So many accidents and deaths on the water are preventable if people wear life jackets,” Wardlow said.
They should be the Coast Guard’s officially-approved design; and they are sized for infants/children, youth and adults by chest size, weight and age.
“And no one should ever put one that’s too big on a child. If they fall or slip into the water, the straps won’t be tight enough to keep the child from slipping out of it. The vest will still float, but the child will sink under water,” he said.
According to state law, a life jacket must be available for each occupant of a boat or paddle craft. Children under age 13 are required to wear one while the boat or paddle craft is underway or drifting.
Last year in Texas, game wardens issued 583 citations for children not wearing a life jacket and 1,483 for insufficient life jackets on the vessel. Some good news is, overall number of citations were down 5.4 percent compared to the previous year.
Regulation life jackets are sold in at least two local stores, including Gibson’s and Walmart, and individually range in price from $14 to $35 depending on the size.
Cute inflatable arm rings and ring-style “donuts” are not a substitute. Wardlow said life preservers aren’t made in that shape anymore.
Now boats are supposed to have a “throw cushion” with attached straps, also Coast Guard-approved.
Wardlow said people who float in kayaks sometimes sit on them as temporary seat cushions, but at least it’s accessible fast when needed. He said people should not “store” the throw cushion inside any compartment where they can’t grab it quickly.
As for locals putting watercraft on the Guadalupe River, he said they should notice the current before embarking. And if they float close to the base of a dam, don’t get too close, or the natural fall of the water could push them under.
Wardlow also said if a local landlord rents a house or cabin to visitors, and the amenities include a watercraft, the owner/landlord is responsible for meeting these rules.
Also stay at least 50 feet away from jet skis traveling at more than “idle speed.”
He said “no wake zones” are marked with buoys.
Wardlow also said that at Flat Rock Park, there are stumps just under the water’s surface, some as close as 1 foot under. He said people on jet skis pulling others on large inflatables often don’t think how close that is, or what would happen if one of the swimmers is thrown off or falls in.
“I recommend only tubing in the center of the river there. The stumps are mostly to the north/Flat Rock Park side of the channel. Or better yet, go to Ingram Lake,” he said.
And there must be a serviceable fire extinguisher with full pressure, on board a motorized boat.
“As a peace officer, that’s one of the things we give the most tickets for,” Wardlow said.
If it’s a motorized boat, there’s a plug in a drain-hole in the bottom back of the boat that must be closed, so the buoyant part of the boat doesn’t take on water.
“We respond to a lot of calls where we find out the operator didn’t check that plug. When they got on the lake or river, the boat started taking on water, and started to sink,” Wardlow said.
Check the fuel level in the engine, on a motorized boat.
Have water on board for people’s hydration.
Before you leave, tell someone onshore your plans, in case you get stranded or have an accident or emergency.
If it’s a motorized boat, navigation lights must be lit if the operator is on the water after sunset.
“The rule is three lights, one green, one red and one white, on the proper sides of the boat,” Wardlow said. “No lights are required on kayaks or paddleboards. But those people need to be extra careful before sunrise and after dusk. Boat drivers on bigger boats can’t see them.”
There are accidents on the shipping lanes on the coast sometimes because someone will take a small nonmotorized boat out and try to cross a channel to go fishing somewhere, and the person who’s paddling can’t get out of the way of a larger ship.
That’s not a big factor on the Guadalupe River and its lakes, but it can be at Canyon, Medina and Travis lakes in this district.
Wardlow said kayaks and paddleboards present some added and especially important safety precautions.
“Kayaks are made in different lengths, but share one design similarity. The operator sits on top of one, not inside it,” Wardlow said. “And the bigger a kayak is, the less maneuverable it is, but it goes faster in a straight line.”
Cody Jones, TPWD Assistant Commander for Marine Enforcement, said, “Most of the tragic deaths and serious injuries that occurred in Texas waters last year and this year could have been prevented by following a few simple and important steps.”
Before heading to the water, Texans should remember these simple recommendations - wear a life jacket, learn how to swim, closely supervise children, use a kill switch, never drive a boat while under the influence of alcohol and take a boater education class.
Boaters should continue to maintain a safe social distance and avoid crowds while out on the water or at docks and ramps.
Additionally, Texans can see the Life Jacket Association website for a guide to proper cleaning and storing of Personal Flotation Devices in relation to COVID-19.
Game wardens and law enforcement officers are on alert looking for those violating “boating under the influence” laws. The effort is in conjunction with Operation Dry Water, a nationally coordinated enforcement campaign focused on deterring boaters from boating under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“Boating under the influence is just as deadly as drinking and driving,” said Jones. “Every year we see dozens of boating accidents and tragedies on Texas waters that could have been avoided if the operator had refrained from drinking. We are calling on all Texans to keep our lakes safe and fun throughout the year by limiting alcohol consumption and having a designated driver at all times when boating on Texas waterways.”
Operating a boat with a blood alcohol concentration above 0.08 percent is an offense that can lead to fines, confinement in jail, and the loss of a driver’s license. In 2019, game wardens made 193 criminal arrests for boating while intoxicated across the state.
For more information about boating safety, laws and requirements, visit TPWD’s boating laws website.