The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement operations in the four-county area including Lake Lanier is down to two boats to patrol the entire lake looking for people boating under the influence of alcohol.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
FLOWERY BRANCH — Despite the June deaths of two young boys on the waters Lake Lanier, Sgt. Mike Burgamy did not expect any drop in the number of Fourth of July revelers populating the 37,000-acre reservoir - or in arrests.
As a matter of fact, Burgamy, who oversees the Georgia Department of Natural Resource Law Enforcement operations in a four-county area including Lake Lanier, said that cases of BUI - boating under the influence - are well into the double digits even after the tragedy.
On June 18, brothers Griffin and Jake Prince, 13 and 9 respectively, were killed when a pontoon boat navigated by their father was struck by a fishing boat driven by Paul J. Bennett of Cumming. The 44-year-old salon owner was arrested a day later or boating under the influence and faces a possible charge of homicide by vessel.
Normally Burgamy's patrol force for Lanier has six watercrafts, but this year two boats are in the shop and there's no manpower for two others.
Surrounding counties answered a last-minute call for holiday assistance, with Gwinnett providing a crew for one of the idled boats, Forsyth chipping in two more boats and Hall adding a jet ski and a marine rescue unit equipped with paramedics and divers.
Fourth of July Was Busy
"It gets as busy as an interstate out here. It's only 10 a.m. and it's already getting crowded," Burgamy said Wednesday as he made a quick preliminary tour of a small slice of the lake. "If the weather holds, I'll have made a few arrests before sundown. I'd be willing to bet my dinner on it."
By late afternoon Burgamy said he hadn't made any BUI arrests but had issued a half-dozen lesser citations and responded to numerous complaints from boaters.
|Photo by Bob Andres|
Policing the estimated 7 million people who visit the lake each year can get overwhelming for the DNR. Last year alone, there were 28 boating-related accidents that resulted in injuries or involved alcohol. In addition to BUI, Burgamy writes up violations for towing a skier without an observer, improper registration or lack of it, expired licenses, inadequate equipment such as too few life vests. His officers have even made a drug bust or two.
Most violations occur around Sunset Cove, a popular docking area that operates a draft house and a tiki bar, Burgamy said. But the partying is not limited to the shore. Boaters also drop anchor in the cove and swim from boat to boat.
"I see them pull out of there just on the borderline of being sober to flat out knee-wobbling drunk," said Burgamy. "We understand that folks want to get on the lake and have fun, but designating a driver could solve so many problems."
Lack of Water Safety Education The Problem
Burgamy said he needs more manpower, but he also said lack of education about water safety is a chronic problem.
"People just don't know the rules of the road. They're amateurs who overestimate their skills behind the wheel of a boat," he said.
While Burgamy sees boaters making mistakes every day, the easiest to correct is letting someone know where they are going. Recently, his phone rang at two a.m. and on the other end was a wife frantically looking for her husband. He didn't know the area and she had no clue where he might be. It turned out he had boat trouble but was all right.
"A simple float plan and a cellphone could've prevented a lot of heartache," he said.
Daniel Jones, 34, of Newnan packed up a cooler with beers and sodas at a QuikTrip on Friendship Road before planning to spend all day on Lake Lanier. Jones said he would not be partaking of the alcoholic beverages, however.
"I am proudly the designated boater today," he said. "It's my boat and my responsibility. I'm also responsible for all of the people on it."
Jones, who said he has been boating all his life, and his wife Kristie, 31, were saddened by the deaths of the young brothers.
"It didn't have to happen," said Kristie Jones. "If people would just watch out for one another out there, things like this could be prevented. Especially the jet skiers that drive too close to other boats."
Her husband said that as a child he was almost struck by a boat and that perhaps that is why he is so vigilant.
"I am totally aware of my surroundings at all times," said Daniel Jones. "I have a lot of fun, but I take it very seriously."