Summer has been relatively safe on Lake Tahoe | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Summer has been relatively safe on Lake Tahoe

Elaine Goodman

Jonah M. Kessel / Tahoe Daily Tribune Marine 1 Officer Dave Gottlieb inspects an oncoming boat Monday evening on Lake Tahoe. The boat as well as the officers' salaries are paid for by the California Department of Boating and Waterways.

Talk to U.S. Coast Guard Executive Petty Officer Josh Martin about boating safety on Lake Tahoe this summer, and the phrase “knock on wood” comes up frequently.

This summer has been a relatively safe one on the lake so far, with two reported fatalities. That compares with eight, nine and seven fatalities, respectively, for the 2005, 2006 and 2007 boating seasons.

“This is, so far, the least amount of fatalities we’ve had on the lake in the last several years,” Martin said, noting that ideally there wouldn’t be any fatalities.

“This is better than the last three years, knock on wood,” he added.

Several factors might have contributed to the better-than-usual safety record thus far. A cold spring might have kept boaters off the lake until later in the season, Martin said. The sluggish economy and the high price of gas also might have kept boaters away.

And the Coast Guard has stepped up its boater-education efforts this year, with more officers on the lake from the north to south shores.

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The Coast Guard has the unique authority to stop boaters at any time and go onboard for a safety inspection, Martin said. As of Tuesday, Coast Guard officers had done so 174 times so far at Lake Tahoe this summer.

“Our main goal is to promote safety and education,” Martin said.

In addition to the two fatalities, the Coast Guard has handled 12 person-in-the-water cases, six vessels taking on water, two boat fires and five capsized vessels this year.

As of Tuesday, the agency had made no arrests for boating under the influence this season at Lake Tahoe.

Officers who man the South Lake Tahoe Police Department’s boat, Marine 1, also reported a relatively mellow season.

“It’s been a very good summer,” said Marine 1 Officer Steve O’Brien. “It’s been relatively incident-free.”

Two Tribune staffers went out on Marine 1 on Sunday to check out the action on the lake.

O’Brien and Marine 1 Officer Dave Gottlieb explained that they try to keep an eye on the waters near boat-rental businesses. The renters often are inexperienced boaters and more likely to encounter problems.

The lake’s low water level makes jutting rocks more of a hazard, and a boat that was damaged after getting stuck on a rock in Emerald Bay was towed past Marine 1.

“That is a serious line of rocks,” O’Brien said, pointing to a row of boulders in Emerald Bay.

O’Brien and Gottlieb regard their role as mostly educational. They find themselves frequently reminding boaters that children younger than 12 are required to wear life jackets while on the lake.

On Sunday, the officers stopped a boat after observing one of the occupants riding on the bow. That’s not allowed if the boat is moving faster than 5 mph, they said.

But no citation was issued, and the two children on the boat were offered T-shirts.

Another boat was stopped when the officers noticed that the group failed to raise a bright-orange flag to indicate when a water-skiing line was down in the water.

“We’re just trying to educate people, hope they do the right thing,” Gottlieb said. “For the most part, they do.”

The officers, who are both retired from the South Lake Tahoe Police Department, do make arrests when necessary and transport injured or sick people to ground ambulances. While arrests are infrequent, Marine 1 officers issue hundreds of warnings, either written or verbal. For example, 247 warnings had been issued for negligent operations or violations of navigational rules from July 1 to Aug. 26.

Marine 1’s season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The boat and the officers’ salaries are paid for by the California Department of Boating and Waterways, which also provides training to the officers.

Gottlieb responded to one of this summer’s more serious boating incidents: a parasailing accident near the Ski Run Marina on June 21. A 24-year-old woman was parasailing with a 15-year-old girl when the line between the boat and parasailers snapped, authorities said. After the two floated down to the lake’s surface, a gust of wind inflated the parachute and dragged the pair through the water, Gottlieb reported at the time.

When the two parasailers were pulled from the water, the woman had no pulse and wasn’t breathing, but was given CPR and regained consciousness, authorities said.

Both parasailers were expected to survive the incident, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, which expects to wrap up its investigation of the matter this week. High winds were present at the time, but investigators could not determine a specific cause of the line breaking, saying numerous factors may have contributed, according to Lauren Kolumbic, U.S. Coast Guard public affairs officer.

O’Brien said it’s typical for long periods without significant activity to be suddenly broken by a major incident. “You’re either sitting here and you’re bored, or the world comes to an end,” he said. “It kind of startles you when it happens.”