ESCANABA - While all boaters should take precautions before heading out onto Lake Michigan, the Delta County Sheriff's Department's Marine Patrol has some special tips for boaters to ensure their safety in an on the water emergency.
Having enough life jackets onboard a vessel is an important part of being a safe and responsible boater, but having the right life jackets for each passenger is just as important.
"Most boats have all that stuff, but you have people out in boats who go out with small kids and don't think about the fact that the adult jackets don't fit the small kids," said Delta County Sheriff's Deputy Jon Smith. "They should be appropriately sized for the person they're intended for."
Ilsa Matthes | Daily Press
Delta County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Jon Smith prepares the department’s marine patrol boat. From the dock, two deputies can prep the boat and leave for an emergency in 45 seconds.
Ilsa Matthes | Daily Press
Delta County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Mike Groleau views data on the marine patrol boat’s chart plotter. The device allows deputies to view the boat’s position compared to land masses and other boats using GPS and radar.
Boaters also need to have a way to call for assistance if they become stranded, lost, or have another emergency on the water. While a marine radio will allow boaters to call for help, a cell phone may be the best bet for a speedy rescue.
"In most of the bays you can have cell service," said Delta County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Groleau. "When you dial 911 it gives us your coordinates immediately... If it's 20 minutes before we get to you we can calculate where you're at by your last position and the way the winds and waves are pushing you. Then we can find you."
Boaters who opt to use a marine radio should be well versed in their usage. Unlike a CB radio, these special radio devices have call, talk, and distress channels that are used under different circumstances. However, marine radios do not provide rescuers with location information and may lead to increased wait times.
"We probably get 70 percent of our calls from 911. The rest of them come through the marine channels from like the Coast Guard, but what people have got to realize is there's a pretty big delay because the Coast Guard is on Washington Island," said Groleau. "They've got about 45 minutes to an hour before they get up in this neck of the woods. We're stationed right in town. We can be on the water in five or 10 minutes."
To reach boaters, the sheriff's department uses a special marine patrol boat, which can be readied from the dock by deputies in roughly 45 seconds. If the boat is on a trailer when a call for assistance comes in the boat can be in the water and ready in two to three minutes.
The boat is equipped with a chart plotter, a digital marine map with GPS and radar functions. Using the chart plotter deputies can see the location of their boat in relation to land masses and other ships on the water within a range of 48 miles.
The other major piece of equipment on the boat is a side scan sonar, which takes images of the bottom of the lake as the boat is moving.
"What it looks like is if you drained the lake and took a photograph with an airplane," said Groleau.
The deputies have discovered everything from shipwrecks to fish cribs and dense pockets of zebra muscles with the side sonar scanner, but the real value of the device is it's ability to find wreckage or victims on the lake's bottom quickly.
"Divers cover a real small, concentrated area. The boat can cover a vast area, eliminate potential targets, and then we can concentrate and know where to put the divers at," said Groleau.
Luckily, drownings are a fairly rare occurrence. The vast majority of calls, roughly 70 percent, are for boats that are stranded and need to be towed to shore with the boat's 300 foot tow line.
"We can go ahead and hook a line to them and bring them back into the harbor," said Groleau.
The types of emergency services provided by marine patrol are varied. In the past deputies have even helped move victims of medical emergencies on the water to shore where they can be moved by ambulance and treated by medical personnel.
"If anybody has an emergency on the water call 911. We'll do it; we'll come. We're funded by a marine safety grant for marine patrol and all that money comes from boat registrations. So if they're registering their boat, they're paying for that service so they might as well call," said Groleau.
Smith echoed the sentiment.
"So many people are hesitant to call because they don't feel like it's a true emergency yet, and we try to encourage people that before it gets to that stage to call," he said.