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Coast Guard, Natural Resources increase enforcement at start of summer boating season

When the officers stopped the 20-foot teal and white Sea Ray power boat careening through Curtis Creek to check for life vests and other safety equipment, they noticed the operator smelled of alcohol and had a can of Natural Ice beer in the drink holder.

Andrew Meyer, a Coast Guard patrolman, asked the operator to complete a series of sobriety tests, including one where he closed his eyes and pointed to his nose. "Right. Right. Left," Meyer repeated as the man followed the directions and three young girls in the boat watched.

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The encounter was part of stepped-up boating safety enforcement by the Coast Guard and Natural Resources Police throughout the Inner Harbor and elsewhere ahead of the traditional start of summer this Memorial Day weekend.

"We really try to increase people's awareness for safety. It can be a dangerous activity," said Natural Resources Police Officer Scott Davis, who along with Meyer and two other officers were out last weekend conducting safety checks and talking to boaters, many of whom were on the water for the first time this season.

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The two agencies' collaboration increased in recent years, after 25 people died in boating accidents in 2011 — the highest toll since 1992. The state counted 12 total boating deaths last year.

Some of those fatalities can be attributed to drinking while boating. But recent data show declines in alcohol-related arrests and accidents. Last year, Natural Resources Police arrested 145 boaters who were operating while intoxicated, down from 206 the year before. Alcohol-related arrests have decreased since 2007, when 237 were arrested.

The agency also reported a steady decline in all boating accidents, from 219 in 2010 to 130 last year. Alcohol-related accidents declined year over year, too, with 12 in 2013 and seven last year.

"Since we've increased our safety patrols, and working with NRP, scheduling patrols together, training together, the numbers have gone down," said Brian J. Kastner, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Curtis Bay. "We're out there when people are drinking."

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Last year, the station's patrols in the waters around Baltimore issued 111 citations for safety violations and 32 for operating under the influence, including three last Memorial Day weekend.

"Historically, Memorial Day weekend is recognized as the beginning of boating season or what we call our search-and-rescue season," Kastner said.

But with warmer weather, he said, they've already seen an influx of boaters out on the water, increasing the potential for danger.

Earlier this month, a boat struck the Curtis Creek Draw Bridge near the Coast Guard station, sending two people to Maryland Shock Trauma Center for serious, but non-Iife-threatening injuries, Kastner said.

The crash remains under investigation, but, he said, there was alcohol on the boat.

"It impairs your judgment; [it's] why the BUI enforcement is so important," he said.

Kastner said the evening can be the most dangerous, when more boaters are out, and they've been drinking all day, or, just like on land, they leave a bar and head home for the night. But the water can be more difficult to safely navigate in the dark.

"It is amazingly different at night," he said. "You get all the background lights. It can be very confusing, even as a professional mariner. It can throw a great boating weekend into a nightmare."

Kastner said he doesn't want to discourage boaters from enjoying themselves.

"I'd want to have some cocktails too [out on the water], but whoever is driving, is not," he said.

Areas that often attract a number of boaters include the Inner Harbor, Middle River and Hart Miller Island, where he said groups will often tie up their boats and drink.

Besides booze, authorities said boats that lack life vests are a major concern. Natural Resources Police wrote the most tickets — 388 last year — for boaters who had an insufficient number of life jackets on board. In 2013, they wrote 418 citations.

Chief Luke Brackett of the Baltimore Environmental Police, which patrols watershed areas, said his officers see similar concerns when patrolling Liberty, Prettyboy and Loch Raven reservoirs.

"We definitely do see an increase in users this time of year. We are here to make sure people are safe," he said.

Extra staff will be on duty this weekend to conduct safety checks with more boaters out on the water, Brackett added.

Alcohol is prohibited in the watershed areas the agency patrols, but he said his officers cited a number of people last Memorial Day weekend for open containers. When two kayakers were injured after they went over the face of Prettyboy Dam in July authorities said alcohol played a factor.

Swimming also is prohibited in the reservoirs, though there have been no drownings in four years, Brackett said.

On Sunday May 17, the Coast Guard's Meyer was among a group patrolling the Inner Harbor, where many boaters were out for the first time this season.

Several boats that were stopped had outdated state registration, while others were reminded to keep enough life jackets on board for everyone.

The day started out with the group stopping a Chaparral 2335 Sport boat carrying a Baltimore couple and friends visiting from D.C.

"I have the registration card in my desk. I just don't have it," the boater said.

Davis of the Natural Resources Police looked up the registration, which he found was expired, and they issued citations for lacking registration numbers on the side of the boat, a valid registration filed with the state, and an oil pollution placard.

"We try not to write tickets. We're more about education," Meyer said.

Before letting the boaters go, he handed them a flier about a new Coast Guard app, which provides information about safety checks and allows boaters to report hazards or suspicious activity. The app also allows boaters to call for help from their phone, instead of calling a 911 operator on land.

As the sky turned pink and lights came on at the Curtis Creek Drawbridge, the group came across the speeding Sea Ray.

As the power boat neared, Davis activated the patrol boat's flashing blue lights and pulled up alongside, while another officer tied the boats together.

As one officer checked for safety equipment, making sure the boaters had enough life vests for all four adults and three children on board and that its flares weren't expired, the others noticed the operator of the boat smelled of alcohol and asked to do a field sobriety test.

Davis collected the driver's licenses from the adults on board and began running their names, checking for any open warrants, and for prior citations and charges.

After the man passed a series of sobriety tests, Meyer told the man, who lives in Pennsylvania, "I've got a couple concerns," questioning his response that he only had two beers all day.

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"That's all I've had," the man insisted.

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Meyer pointed at the three young girls in the boat.

"There are kids on the boat," he said, telling him to go home and asking one of the women on board to take the wheel.

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Boating spots

Popular spots for boaters, according to Coast Guard officials:

•Inner Harbor, Baltimore

•Middle River, Baltimore County

•Hart Miller Island, Baltimore County

•Bodkin Creek, Anne Arundel County

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