Originally created 07/04/99

Officers patrol holiday boaters



LEXINGTON, S.C. -- The boating manual that Officer Dudley Britt must try to commit to memory is a little more than two inches thick.

So sometimes it's easy for boaters to play what Officer Britt calls "Stump the Game Warden." And this weekend, the busiest boating weekend of all, the Department of Natural Resources officer bets he'll have quite a few players.

But don't test him on the things that all boaters must know before heading out on South Carolina waterways this Fourth of July -- more than likely you will lose.

Before betting a six pack of beer or a few bucks, here's what boaters need to know:

Boaters must have a Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person aboard your boat.

Boats must have a horn or whistle on board.

People younger than 16 and wanting to operate a motor boat or personal water craft with a 15 horsepower motor or more without being accompanied by an adult must take a boating education course.

Boaters must have a life preserver on all boats longer than 16 feet.

A fire extinguisher must be on most boats.

Boaters need to know the rules at all times, but they will be strongly enforced this weekend, and many violations come with hefty fines.

The same applies in Georgia, where officers will give spot checks to suspected drunken boaters and ticket those who carry youngsters who aren't wearing life jackets.

Georgia law mandates that children under 10 must wear them, and officers take the requirement seriously. The number of drownings is on the rise and already this year, 38 people have drowned in Georgia waterways.

Anticipating a record number of boaters this weekend on South Carolina waterways, the Natural Resources Department is getting help from other state agencies, including the State Law Enforcement Division.

On Lake Murray alone, 16 additional officers will be called in to make routine equipment checks, enforce boating laws and patrol the waters for intoxicated boaters. A total of 40 officers will be on watch.

And this year, they'll have an additional weapon in tow -- a breath-alcohol machine.

A bill signed into law Friday by Gov. Jim Hodges brings the rules of the state's waterways in line with the roadways, and that includes drunken driving in a boat.

Drew's Law, also called the Boating Reform and Safety Act, made that possible.

But it took the death of a child to convince lawmakers change the rules.

Before the law was changed, the maximum penalty for a boating reckless homicide was five years in prison compared to 10 years for reckless homicide in a car.

A person convicted of driving under the influence in which another person was killed faces up to 25 years in prison. Had that same drunk killed someone in a boat, the maximum sentence was 10 years.

But not anymore. The new law corrects deficiencies that have let bad boaters escape with light penalties.

It's named for Joseph Drew Smith, a 11-year-old Lexington boy who was killed July 19, 1997, when two boats collided on Lake Murray. He was fishing a night bass tournament with his father, Randall, when the accident occurred. The driver of one vessel was drunk, and Drew's death prompted the legislation.

Under the law, Department of Natural Resource officers who patrol state waters can now administer a breath-alcohol test to suspected drunken boaters.

Before Drew's Law, police could only request testing of boat operators when there was a reportable accident or casualty.

"It's a law that's been too long coming," said Officer Britt. "Death is no less devastating on the highway. On the water, it's probably worse because there are some instances where we've never been able to recover the body."

Two years later, Karen Smith still will not discuss the boating accident that claimed her son's life because of a pending trial. The boat driver faces charges in Lexington County of criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice and failure to perform duties of an operator in a collision.

But she never misses an opportunity to talk about her youngest son, who would have turned 13 on June 6. He shared that birthdate with his father.

"Every parent loves their children, but Drew was truly special to us," Mrs. Smith said. "When legislators passed this law, we knew that Drew's life really meant something, that it wasn't less important than someone killed in a car accident."

Over the last two years, the Smiths formed Citizen's Concerned for Boating Safety, a private advocacy organization and have spent endless hours untangling government red tape and speaking at meetings across the state to change South Carolina's antiquated boating laws.

Each time she talked of a boy who loved bass fishing with his daddy. A boy who walked in the kitchen with a Cheshire-cat grin on his face to surprise her with a bouquet of dandelions. And a boy who had saved all his money for Nintendo games, then used it to buy neighborhood children treats from the ice cream truck.

"Finally something good has come out of Drew's death," Mrs. Smith said."But we weren't going to stop telling his story until a new law was passed."

Boating under the influence is also taken seriously on Georgia's waterways.

A conviction on a charge of boating under the influence can mean suspension of boating privileges for up to a year for first-time conviction, three years for second conviction and five years for a third conviction.

However, with proof of completing an approved BUI education course, privileges can be restored within 30 days on a first offense, 120 days for a second offense and five years for a third conviction.

Last summer, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources strictly enforced BUI laws and made 341 arrests.

Cracking down on careless boating makes sense in both states, where recreational waterways abound.

Few South Carolinians are more than 30 minutes away from some type of water body no matter where they live.

From the seashore to the mountains, more than 900 square miles are blanketed with waters, most wearing names of rhythmic wonderment. Some bodies of water are strewn with the history of Indians, early traders and troops of soldiers from bygone wars.

Whether it's that sense of timelessness or something else that draws people to water, the results can be dangerous. Boating accidents resulted in 28 fatalities on South Carolina waters last year.

Fifty drownings were also reported, many which could have been prevented if life jackets were worn.

In neighboring Georgia, 16 people died in boating accidents. Twelve of those were drownings, and nine of those people were not wearing life jackets.

There are 394,000 registered boats in the Palmetto State but when canoes, kayaks and sailboats are factored into the equation, the number of boaters is catapulted to well over a million.

That many watercraft competing for space has made the jobs of marine officers like Officer Britt harder to handle.

"Testosterone, water and alcohol are the three deadly killers on this lake, and I want to do everything I can to keep everyone safe under my watch," said Officer Britt, a 16-year veteran. "If that means writing a ticket for whatever reason, so what. They may get mad, but at least they are alive to get mad."

Chasiti Kirkland can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.