JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start to summer and the boating season, and along with all the people headed out on the water for some fun in the sun, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers will also be hitting the water to make sure boaters have the proper equipment they need to stay safe.
For many people, Memorial Day weekend is the first time they've taken their boat out since the weather's warmed up.
Some of these boaters though are setting off without realizing that the safety equipment on their boats, meant to save lives and keep them safe in an emergency, may not be in working order or may just need a little tuneup.
Safety equipment like new bulbs in navigation lights, life jackets unusable because of mold or from sitting in oil or water for a long period of time, expired fire extinguishers or flares or new batteries in the VHF radio used to give weather alert information.
Boaters, like the Walsh family, who recently celebrated 2-year-old Kiley Walsh's second boat ride and her brother, Matthew Walsh's, 16th birthday, are just some of the people who are out on the water having a good time.
"We're just riding around, stopping occasionally to swim (and eating Cheetos), the most important part," Kately Walsh said.
FWC officers want people to have a good time, they just want them to do it safely and Lt. Paul Arkin is just one of 15 officers in Duval and Nassau Counties, stopping boaters to make sure they have the proper equipment so tragedy doesn't strike.
"This weekend there was a lot of wind and strong currents that made large wakes, and when you add a lot of boats to that, it can sometimes be disastrous," Arkin said.
Arkin said there is list of things that every boat needs and they need to be up to date and in good working order.
• Officials require a fire extinguisher that is not expired,
• Flares if boaters plan on going off shore,
• A throw-able device for boats longer than 16 feet
• Life jackets for everyone on board, which anyone under 6 has to be wearing
• A horn or whistle
With the help of other agencies, Arkin started an initiative called WEAR IT Florida, giving free Wendy's Frosty coupons to kids seen wearing life jackets.
He asks boaters to take their time, be courteous, and have a designated operator, because driving a boat drunk can be just as dangerous and is just as serious to police as driving a car drunk.
"Our officers are out in full force during the summertime and we're looking for impaired vessel operators," Arkin said.
AAA also said that alcohol use ranks fifth in total boating accidents and is the lead contributing factor in accidents involving deaths on the water.
Also, if you were born after January 1988, you're required to have a boating safety card to operate any type of vessel. You can take the class for free through FWC or through a private company online for usually about $50.
Insurance is also another part of boating safety just in case disaster strikes.
Last year, the United States Coast Guard reported more than 4,000 boat accidents with 610 deaths and close to $40 million in property damage. AAA says that one third of boat owners in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee don't have boat insurance.
"The first thing that comes to mind, people think they're going to get into a collision. Yes, that can happen. But you never know if your vessel is going to take on water and it's going to sink. You never know if something ignites and has a fire and you spend $20-30,000 to buy a boat and then it's gone," Arkin said.
Arkin said that he's responded to a boat that suddenly sank at the Jacksonville Landing last week and there have been multiple incidents where boaters have run aground.
"If you run aground on concrete or on rocks at a certain speed you'll damage the fiberglass, crack the fiberglass and start taking on water," Arkin explained.
AAA said many people wrongly assume their homeowner's insurance is all the coverage they need for their boat but it said that most homeowner's policies have minimal coverage for small boats with either no engine or a small engine.
So as the summer rolls on and boaters hit the water for some fun in the sun, FWC officers will be out in full force, making sure boaters are safe and smart.