This summer was one of the safest in years at Smith Mountain Lake, according to Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Boating incidents dropped sharply compared to last year, and no major injuries or deaths were reported.
From May through September, usually the busiest months on the lake, eight boating incidents were reported. That number is a sharp decline from the 17 incidents reported last year, according to VDGIF. This year also was the first summer in more than five years without a boating fatality or a drowning.
“There is a sense of relief,” VDGIF Officer James Hale said of a summer free of incidents.
The last boating fatality was in 2016. That year Gabby Ayers, 17, of North Carolina, was killed in July when the personal watercraft she was riding collided with a boat.
While there were no boating-related fatalities in 2017, there were two drownings. Michael Wood, 58, of Nelson County, drowned when he fell into the water at Pelican Point Yacht Club in Union Hall on July 22. A 9-year-old boy from Durham, North Carolina, also drowned while playing with other children on a floating trampoline Aug. 5. Neither of the victims was wearing a life jacket.
Last year, a 73-year-old North Carolina man died in June after having a medical emergency while in the water. A month later, a 2-year-old boy from Texas drowned after falling from a dock in Huddleston.
Hale attributed several factors to the reduction in incidents this year, but said one of the biggest was better education. “Mandatory boater education has really helped a lot,” he said.
Hale said he has noticed more people understanding the rules on the water, as well as a larger number of people wearing life jackets. He said most of the children he saw this summer were wearing life jackets, and most adults wore them on boats.
VDGIF departments in Bedford and Franklin counties were also both fully staffed this year, leading to more patrols and better coverage of the lake. Hale said there were usually between three and four boat patrols during an average weekend during the summer, and as many as seven patrols during major holiday weekends.
Another factor that could have helped lower the number of incidents is a change in VDGIF’s guidelines of what constitutes an incident. In previous years, property damage more than $2,000 or an injury beyond first aid was a reportable incident.
This year, the guidelines changed that anyone injured must receive medical treatment before it is considered a reportable incident. Hale said he was unsure if there were any unreported incidents this year that could have been reported in previous years.
While incidents were low this year, the number of boaters arrested for operating a boat while intoxicated increased. Since 2014, VDGIF averages between five and seven boating while intoxicated arrests during the summer.
This year, 16 people were arrested, Hale said. That could be due to increased patrols this summer and multiple boating safety checkpoints during busy holiday weekends. The checkpoints usually run for a few hours and stop 80 boats or more, he said.
While summer has come to an end, there are still more warm weeks ahead. Boat patrols will still be on the lookout for boaters who are intoxicated or are breaking the rules. “We are not out of the woods yet,” Hale said.