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Police stressing boating safety with Operation Dry Water

By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

4:57 PM EDT, June 29, 2013

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An alarming spike in the number of fatalities over the past three years on Maryland waterways has prompted Gov. Martin O'Malley and Natural Resources Police to encourage boaters and swimmers to take part in Operation Dry Water this weekend.

Operation Dry Water is a national initiative designed to promote boater safety, particularly cracking down on drinking and boating. Natural Resources Police patrolling Maryland waterways “will aggressively target those driving in a reckless or negligent manner and/or under the influence of alcohol. Officers will also make sure boaters have the required safety equipment onboard and are maintaining a proper lookout.”

According to Natural Resources Police, there have been six drownings this year, including two last weekend. Last year, there were 11 deaths on Maryland waters after 24 in 2011, nearly twice the 10-year average.

“The Natural Resources Police and the U.S. Coast Guard work tirelessly to educate people about this serious issue year-round — especially during the summer months — yet we continue to lose lives on our waterways,” O'Malley said last week.

Sgt. Brian Albert, the public information officer for Natural Resources Police, said both of last weekend's fatalities were preventable. Neither of the victims was wearing a life preserver.

Todd Heaton, 32, of Greensboro drowned in the Choptank River in Caroline County when he went swimming off the boat in which he was fishing with a friend.

Nancy Rogers, 75, of Lancaster, Pa., drowned while taking a swim in the Chesapeake Bay near North East while on an overnight sailboat trip with her husband.

Alcohol is not believed to be a factor in their deaths. Autopsies are pending.

“In both cases, the boats were anchored and the current pulled them too far away,” Albert said. “The water in the Chesapeake Bay might look like it's still, but the current is always moving.”

As a result of the recent drownings, O'Malley said in a statement that he is “asking every single Marylander to heed and share this message: Wearing a life preserver when recreating on our waterways can make the difference between life and death, whether you return to your family at the end of the day or not.

“Even if you are just taking a dip, it is easy to misjudge the depth of the water or strength of the current. By putting yourself at risk, you are also putting friends, family members and bystanders that try to help you at risk. Think about it and act accordingly.”

According to the Natural Resources Police, “approximately 75 to 80 percent of boating deaths are due to drowning, many of which could have been prevented with the use of a life jacket.”

Albert said Operation Dry Water was ready to go into effect before the recent drownings, as part of an effort by the National Safe Boating Council to promote safety on the water.

“Our officers will be working around the clock this weekend to ensure that Maryland's waterways are safe for all boaters,” Col. George Johnson IV of the Natural Resources Police said in a statement. “If we can prevent one person from becoming injured, or get one impaired boater off the water, then we have accomplished our mission.”

The maximum penalty for operating a vessel while impaired by alcohol is a $1,000 fine and a year in jail for the first offense.

don.markus@baltsun.com