In recent months, at least seven boats in St. Bernard Parish waters have capsized in bad weather or were partially sunk, requiring the boaters to be rescued by the Sheriff’s Office Marine Division or the Coast Guard.
The problems illustrate the importance of taking special precautions for cold weather boating, Sheriff James Pohlmann said.
If people get stuck on the water or their boat sinks as temperatures are dropping their survival could be at stake if they haven’t taken some basic steps before going out, the sheriff said.
Most problems on the water involve a boat breaking down, getting stuck on a mud flat – especially after rapid tide drop caused by winds – or the boaters getting lost, Sheriff Pohlmann said. Sometimes the vessel goes down because of weather.
There can also be medical emergencies onboard that can be deadly unless the people are found quickly.
“While St. Bernard Parish is a paradise for those who like to boat in cold weather for fishing or hunting it calls for planning in advance, including taking precautions for emergencies and being aware of the effects of winds on tides,’’ Sheriff Pohlmann said.
“Don’t get caught out on the water in cold conditions without being prepared for an emergency or it could cost you your life or someone dear to you,’’ the sheriff said.
He said people who boat in cold weather must, before they leave, tell someone specifically where they will head out to and when they will be back.
And they must carry fully-charged cell phones, signaling devices, extra dry clothing or blankets, food and liquids, the sheriff said. Bringing something to start a fire with in case a boater gets stranded in the marsh on a cold night could also save someone’s life, he said.
Also, if a boat is sinking and passengers have to swim for a marsh area it would be essential to have something waterproof to keep extra clothing, your cell phone and flares in or cold weather could be unbearable or even deadly.
The members of the Marine Division, its commander Capt. Brian Clark and Sgt. Shane Lulei, are the ones who go out to find and rescue people who are lost or having problems on the water. They often work with the Coast Guard, state Wildlife and Fisheries agents and the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office to help boaters.
“It’s all about planning’’ when cold weather arrives, said Clark, a 25-year veteran of the state Wildlife and Fisheries Department before taking over the post in St. Bernard.
Clark’s advice: “You have to pay attention to the weather and check equipment’’ before you leave in a boat.
“You want to look at forecasts for anything involving expected winds from the West, Northwest, Southwest or North,’’ Clark said. “Be prepared for cold fronts with winds causing rapid tide drop’’ that drain the marshes. “You can expect a 1-4 foot drop in heavy winds.’’
Because people who boat often try to fit it in around their work schedules they sometimes don’t take time to check on expected weather changes, Clark said, and can get caught in bad situations. “They may try to get out on the water when they can’’ and not see if weather or wind changes are coming, he said.
Lulei said the Sheriff’s Office’s airboats or its 22-foot and 24-foot boats are used for search and rescues, including going into low water marsh situations.
Those heading out by boat should follow simple precautions:
- Tell people where you are going and when you are expected back and try not to deviate in case a search is required.
- Have the right safety gear aboard including a wearable flotation device for each person in case the vessel capsizes or someone is thrown overboard.
- Carry at least one flotation device that can be thrown to someone who falls into water and always use that instead of jumping in after them. In a panicked state, a person suddenly in the water can bring someone down with them.
- Always have a signaling device such as a flare or at least a working flashlight. A push pole is good to carry in case you need to try to get off a mud flat.
- Carry a fully-charged cell phone and pay attention to surroundings so you can accurately describe where you are. If possible, carry a device to re-charge a boat battery if needed.
- Dress warmly and bring liquids and food as well as blankets or extra dry clothing, and always have something that can be used to start a fire in the marsh to provide heat if necessary overnight.
- Have something waterproof to carry clothes, cell phone and flares in case the boat is capsized.