Tis the season, and with more and more boats hitting the water with more frequency safety is the first priority of the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office Marine Division patrolling the 110 miles of international shoreline.
“We’ve got more water than any county in the state of Michigan,” said Sheriff Tim Donnellon. “And with that comes tremendous, tremendous responsibility. So safety first and foremost on the water.”
Water is beautiful but dangerous, and just like Aretha Franklin’s 1967 classic hit, it deserves respect. Sheriff Donnellon said there have been years in St. Clair County with as many as seventeen drownings and we’ve already had two this year. For Donnellon that’s two too many.
“Ninety-nine percent of drownings are preventable,” he said. “And it’s all about life jackets. Have a floatation device. Have it on.”
And don’t just have any life jacket, said Lieutenant Paul Reid, who runs the Marine Division. Have an appropriately sized Coast Guard approved life jacket, especially for the kids.
Lieutenant Reid and his deputies will be patrolling the water all summer performing safety checks. They’ll be looking for the mandatory life jackets and making sure there are enough for everyone on board. Michigan law also requires boaters have a sound-making device like a whistle or a horn, flares or a visual distress signal and a fire extinguisher.
Deputies will also be checking registration as well as boater safety cards for anyone born after 1986 or after 1978 if on a jet ski. People who lost their card can get a replacement from the DNR for a small fee.
“It’s important for the boaters to educate themselves, follow the laws,” Lieutenant Reid said. “We want you to have fun, we want you to be safe.”
Part of boater safety is following the other laws the Marine Division enforces, including wake laws. Boats 26 feet and under need to be at least 200 feet away from shore and larger boats need to be 600 feet offshore. And no drunk driving.
“The law in Michigan allows you to consume alcohol while you’re boating, but that does not give the driver the right to be intoxicated,” Lieutenant Reid said. Boat drivers with a blood-alcohol level of .08 will be arrested.
With 110 miles of shoreline and only four patrol boats, that’s a lot of water for the Sheriff’s Office Marine Division to cover on its own. The division partners with the U.S. Coast Guard, and all fire departments from Burtchville to Ira townships plus other law enforcement, as well as their Canadian counterparts.
And if you happen to come across one of them while you’re enjoying the water, “give them a break,” Sheriff Donnellon said. “You’re out there having fun, they’re out there getting sunburned.”