Recent fatalities highlight water safety

By Jonathan Lockett and Paula King

Article Launched: 08/04/2008 08:45:40 PM PDT

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A jet skier makes his way across the Delta water near Oakley , Calif., on Wednesday, July 30,...

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A young man propels his personal watercraft into the air over a nearby boat's wake as he speeds along Indian Slough near Discovery Bay — a short distance from two crosses placed along the bank in memory of people who perished on this waterway.
As the boater passes by, he lands in the water after failing to complete the jump. His friend plays it safe, bypassing a jump attempt with his watercraft.
"Make sure you guys stay 100 feet from those other vessels," Sgt. Doug Powell of the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office says through the megaphone on his patrol boat. "You can't jump the wake of another vessel within 100 feet."
Powell knows all too well the dichotomy of the Delta — a stretch of beautiful, tranquil waterways that can be either a recreational paradise or a disaster zone for unsuspecting or careless watercraft users. That reality hit home last month when two Discovery Bay residents died and two more were seriously injured in the span of
eight days from accidents involving personal watercraft.
Powell said Indian Slough is the most dangerous area of the Delta in Contra Costa County because it becomes congested from boaters entering and leaving Discovery Bay. He said five boating fatalities have occurred in the slough in the past 12 years, the most recent of which were July 19, when Jill Hullen, 47, died when the WaveRunner she was riding on with her son collided
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with a 23-foot boat; and, eight days later, when Jeffrey Rinne, 23, died after a WaveRunner he was riding on crashed into the support of the Old River Bridge a few miles away.
Investigators are still trying to understand the causes of the accidents, but both involved personal watercraft — statistically the most dangerous vessel to use on any waterway in California, let alone one with the narrow sloughs and blind corners commonly found in the Delta.
In its 2007 boating safety report, the California Department of Boating and Waterways noted that 84 percent of accidents involving personal watercraft resulted in injury, compared with 60 percent on boats. Sixty-two percent of personal watercraft accidents in California involve riders considered inexperienced.
"They don't have brakes, they don't have air bags, they don't have seat belts, and once you come off the throttle you lose your steering capability," Powell said. "So a novice, someone who has not operated a personal watercraft, if in fact they were heading toward something and they want to change directions — one of the primary issues is they're going to come off throttle, and they're going to lose steering."
In addition, the weather can take a heavy toll after hours on the water. Powell said these "stressors" affect personal watercraft riders in particular.
"It's draining on your body — the sun, the wind, the elements, the bouncing up and down," Powell said. "Now, put yourself on a personal watercraft, where you are actually maneuvering that PWC using your arms back and forth, and then you're out there for a long period of time.
"There are the same stressors. A lot of people don't know that. And they don't know until it's too late."
Area residents say knowing the Delta is as important as knowing your watercraft. Oakley's Ron Paris, who has been boating in the Delta for 18 years, said the complex waterways can be dangerous for people who don't take the time to educate themselves about the area.
"A lot of the sloughs are narrow, and you have no real speed limits on boats," Paris said. "The Delta has a lot of hidden hazards, and in these narrow sloughs there is no room for mistakes. Every place is different, and you should get acquainted with the area."
Personal watercraft can be unforgiving when it comes to safety. Along with the lack of protection and complex operational issues, manufacturers are designing them faster, Powell said. Some can exceed 60 mph, and excessive speed is the reason for 58 percent of accidents in California.
Jack Wetherell, 17, from Palo Verdes, said he'd been boating in the area numerous times but the only bad experience he witnessed was the accident scene on Old River last month. His advice to personal watercraft users is to be especially cautious.
"Keep it slow, know your limits, be looking around every blind turn," Wetherell said. "When coming up to a blind turn, definitely slow down."
Education on the Delta and boating safety could save millions of dollars resulting from accidents, injury and death, Powell said, adding that people would benefit immensely from courses offered for free by the Department of Boating and Waterways. The sheriff's office increases patrols along the Delta during certain periods, citing anyone in violation of the California Harbors and Navigation Code.
"We're going to be out there in force taking a zero-tolerance approach on boating and alcohol, as well as stopping PWCs if we see an unsafe act," Powell said.
Discovery Bay's Melinda Carreon said she has long seen the dangers that result from inexperienced boaters and watercraft users near her home, and believes mandatory education would improve safety.
"We get a lot of people out in Discovery Bay that are new boat owners from other areas that have no idea what they are doing, and they wreak havoc on the Discovery Bay waterways," Carreon said. "I think it would help if people had to pass a boating class and have a special license to operate a boat."
Legislation was introduced by state Assemblyman Michael Duvall, R-Yorba Linda, in February that would require boaters to carry a vessel operator card in order to operate any motor-powered water vehicle in California waters.
Powell noted that such a law would improve boating safety conditions, but it ultimately comes down to watercraft users.
"I think that people need to be responsible," Powell said. "I don't think people need to be regulated in everything they do in their life. But I think people need to be educated, and I think they need to take responsibility and do the right thing."
Reach Jonathan Lockett at 925-779-7174 or [email protected]. Reach Paula King at 925-779-7189 or [email protected].
Personal Watercraft Safety Tips Power must be maintained to steer the personal watercraft; you will lose steering if the throttle is off.
Exposure to conditions such as sun and wind increase mental and physical fatigue. This can affect judgment and reaction times.
You must be 16 or older to operate a personal watercraft; 12- to 15-year-olds can operate them only with an adult on board.
Safety lanyards, which can cut off power, must be worn by personal watercraft operators.
Always wear a Coast Guard-approved life vest.
Take a boating safety class to learn the basic rules on the water.
Never drink alcohol when operating a personal watercraft.
-- Contra Costa County
Sheriff's Office
Watch a video and vote in a poll on Delta watercraft safety.