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Headed out on the water for Fourth of July? Officials want you to do this first.

Officials lay out some rules and advice for boaters to take before heading out on the water for Fourth of July.
Officials lay out some rules and advice for boaters to take before heading out on the water for Fourth of July. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of Anne Arundel County’s boaters and swimmers are expected to take to the water to participate in Fourth of July festivities this weekend, especially with a forecast of relatively mild weather, per Natural Resources Police spokesperson Lauren Moses.

There are dozens of safety tips Annapolis and Maryland officials would ask prospective party-goers to abide by before heading out on Saturday, both in line with coronavirus caution and general water safety.

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This weekend, Natural Resources Police will partner with the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, as well as local law enforcement, as a part of “Operation Dry Water,” a joint action intended to prevent alcohol-related accidents and injuries on the water, per a press release.

Between July 3 and 5, Marylanders should expect to see an uptick of police patrols this weekend, keeping an eye out for impaired boaters.

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The DNR will post on social media throughout the weekend various statistics about boating sober and stories on those who have died from intoxicated boating, Moses said.

Maryland tops the charts for most alcohol-related boating accidents per 100,000 registered watercraft (19.37), according to a recent study by Boat Safe, based on U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division and Bureau of Transportation information. This surpasses Utah, Washington, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Missouri, Massachusetts, Illinois and Florida.

“We’re really trying to target sober boating, and just staying safe as if you were in a car,” Moses said.

While Maryland law allows those who are operating a boat to consume alcoholic drinks, the operator is not permitted to become intoxicated or reach a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or higher. Annapolis Harbormaster Beth Bellis urges that everyone headed out to the water designate a sober operator, just as a group would have a designated driver when going out to drink in any other capacity.

Moses emphasizes the “float plan,” or giving a friend or family member who will be on dry land information about the boaters’ whereabouts on the water and what time they’re expecting to return.

Department of Natural Resources police responded to a boating emergency on June 19 in Queen Anne’s County when a father and his son who were due to return to shore at 8 p.m. had not come back. A rescue team worked through the night until the boy and father were found around 6 a.m.

“Because of that float plan, because he gave the wife the information where they would be, what time they should be expected, that way there is somebody on the other side or in circumstances that authorities can be alerted,” Moses said.

All flotation devices, such as throw rings, should be readily available on deck so that, in the event someone falls overboard or has trouble while swimming, no time is wasted in a rescue.

The same goes for what each person has on. Officials emphasized that everyone wear life jackets while the boat is in motion. It is Maryland law that children under the age of 13 must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times while on a recreational vessel under 21 feet in length on state waters.

Other requests are even simpler.

“Don’t do bow riding with your legs hanging over. I’ve seen some horrible accidents when people do that,” Bellis said. “Also, don’t hang your legs over the back when the boat is in motion. People should be in a designated seat on the boat when the boat is underway.”

Everyone headed out on the water is also encouraged to go over all navigational rules and check all safety equipment, especially lights. Bellis said she’ll find many boaters discover their lights don’t work when the daylight is already gone.

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“And this is not a law, but always on the Fourth of July when folks anchor and congregate after dark, you see a lot of people swimming. There are sometimes injuries and accidents when that happens,” Bellis said. “So if you’re going to swim around a multitude of boats after dark during fireworks, be very careful — and maybe consider not doing that.”

As an added layer to regular boating safety, officials also implore people to take coronavirus precautions to their gatherings.

Bellis said that it is possible that the virus can be transmitted through sewage, so when boaters use a self-service station they should follow all CDC-recommended guidelines there as well.

And though there is no longer a required limit on the size of outdoor gatherings, per Gov. Larry Hogan’s orders, Moses would still ask groups to practice social distancing even when at sea. In other words, use common sense.

“If you are going to be out, make sure you’re aware who you’re going to be boating with. Make sure you’re taking proper precautions to keep you and your family safe, as well if you’re out on the beach,” Moses said. “It’s important to at least try to stay six feet from another family just so the chance of you catching the virus is low. Even though it may not be mandatory to keep six feet apart, we want to promote that, just so you can keep you and your family safe.”

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