The lake is fun but also dangerous

Photo by Jim GrantU.S. Coast Guard crew members Billy Whitted, right, and Daniel Maloney conduct a boat safety inspection near Cave Rock on Thursday.

Photo by Jim GrantU.S. Coast Guard crew members Billy Whitted, right, and Daniel Maloney conduct a boat safety inspection near Cave Rock on Thursday.

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Boat patrol agencies are hoping the fun and sun people enjoy on Lake Tahoe are grounded in reality this summer, the area's busiest time.

For the season that started Memorial Day and ended Labor Day last year, the U.S. Coast Guard responded to 32 boat groundings because of the low lake level. It had 280 total calls, up from the average of 200.

Boaters will find it increasingly difficult to bring their vessels into small coves or near the shoreline this summer.

"We're expecting a lot more with the lake lower," Coast Guard Operations Manager Billy Whitted said while out on patrol last week.

The Coast Guard boards a handful of boats to conduct safety inspections each weekend during the summer months.

Federal law requires boaters carry life jackets for each passenger, a fire extinguisher and a sounding device that may be heard from more than 500 feet away.

A Coast Guard crew pulled up Thursday to a 14-foot fishing boat, where a Carson City man received a citation for failing to carry a fire extinguisher.

"You need this whenever you run a motor," Whitted told the fisherman offshore from Cave Rock.

The man must answer to a hearing officer, who will give him 30 days to make the necessary corrections. He may be fined.

All the federal, state, county and city patrols look for erratic behavior on the lake. Most cases involve making boat wakes within 200 feet and alcohol abuse, as the law requires the boat operator to have no more than a 0.08 percent blood alcohol level.

Safety is always the biggest concern to rescue agencies.

Lake Tahoe averages two drownings a year. Hypothermia is the biggest killer, as Tahoe's waters -- averaging 57 to 60 degrees --are colder than most lakes and 40 degrees colder than the human body.

"The potential danger is people think the lake is beautiful and can't hurt them," Coast Guard Seaman Heather Ambrose said.

She recommends boaters tell people on land about their journey.

Each person's resistance to hypothermia varies, as one 70-year-old man found out a few weeks ago, Coast Guard Chief Jim Devane said.

His wooden boat sank off the shores of Regan Beach, and he was submerged for about an hour.

"He had a life jacket, and that saved his life," Devane said.

City boat patrollers Steve O'Brien and Chuck Sohrt, recalling the incident, foresee a potential hazard this summer off shore at Regan Beach. Swimmers will be more apt to walk out in the lake for quite a distance, bringing with them possible confrontations with Jet Skis going by.

In his 14th year patrolling the lake, Sohrt has seen his fair share of various watercraft.

When the wind picks up, the patrol boat makes the rounds picking up children in rafts who drift offshore from Pope Beach.

"Enforcement is only one aspect of this job. Most people see we do rescues and provide service, and everybody waves at us," Sohrt said.

-- Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-3793 or


A new California law, which bans two-stroke boat engines on Lake Tahoe, Cascade, Echo and Fallen Leaf lakes, will be enforced this summer by boat patrols. The misdemeanor may result in a maximum penalty of $1,000 in fines, six months in jail or both, the California Department of Boating and Waterways reported. -- Susan Wood

(breakout box)

Refrain from drinking alcohol.

Wear a life jacket.

Tell someone where and when you're going out.

Have a waterskiing observer on board the boat.


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