Memorial Day weekend, COVID-19 create busy, challenging time on Alabama waterways

Memorial Day weekend, COVID-19 create busy, challenging time on Alabama waterways
Troopers with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Marine Patrol remind boaters to have life jackets that are accessible, in good condition, sized for the intended individual and U.S. Coast Guard-approved. (National Safe Boating Council)

The traditional kickoff weekend to summer will likely bring boaters out in big numbers despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are expecting a very busy Memorial Day holiday period,” said Capt. Matt Brooks of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s (ALEA) Marine Patrol.

Boating fatalities in Alabama this past year reached numbers not seen in decades, including two people who died on Memorial Day weekend and 27 others who died in accidents the rest of 2019. Troopers will be out in full force on the state’s 1,600 miles of rivers and 53 miles of Gulf coastline May 23-25. There are 47 troopers in the Marine Patrol Division, with seven new ones joining the force in June, Brooks said. Another five new marine troopers will be added by year-end.

The coronavirus crisis has created some first-time obstacles for the men and women patrolling state waters but no officer has tested positive for the disease.

Troopers with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Marine Patrol remind boaters of social distancing recommendations and water safety standards. (National Safe Boating Council)

“Marine Patrol Troopers are following all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Alabama Department of Public Health guidelines regarding personal hygiene protocols and have PPE, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, on hand while on patrol,” Brooks said. “The primary responsibilities of any law enforcement officer require close contact with the public, and our troopers are exercising as much caution as possible while continuing to carry out their duties.”

Boating traffic statewide spiked during the first weeks of the pandemic, Brooks said, as some of the 1-million Alabama boatowners began working from home. Even though there was no official spring break for Alabama students since schools were already closed March 23-27, many parents and their children took to the waters anyway.

As summer has neared, Brooks said boating traffic has returned to “a more traditional pattern,” which leads troopers to believe Memorial Day weekend will bring crowds back to the beaches, rivers and lakes statewide. Troopers will remain vigilant enforcing laws despite COVID-19 dangers.

“We will utilize our standard high-visibility patrols on state bodies of water as usual, along with safety checkpoints, saturation patrols and night patrols during the holiday period,” Brooks said. “We’ll also work closely with other ALEA divisions, such as Highway Patrol and SBI on special details. We have also established news media dates … to help get our message out.”

Troopers with the Marine Patrol remind boaters of social distancing recommendations, as well as these other water-safety standards:

  • Realize the designated driver practice works as well on the water as it does on the road. If boaters insist on having alcoholic beverages on board, make sure there is a designated driver.
  • Be courteous and cautious.
  • Follow boating rules. Know what to do in a head-to-head meeting and know right-of-way rules and regulations.
  • Make sure life jackets are accessible, in good condition, sized for the intended individual and U.S. Coast Guard-approved.
  • Make sure there is one PFD on board the boat for each person that is sized and intended for that individual. Children younger than 8 must wear PFDs.
  • Make sure the required boat navigation lights are on and in good working order at night. Operate at slower speeds and don’t venture into unfamiliar territory.
  • Give other boaters plenty of room. Don’t operate too closely to private docks or the shoreline, and give skiers and swimmers a wide berth.
  • Never overload a vessel. Follow the capacity plate guidelines.
  • Make it a habit to check the vessel’s safety equipment before using the vessel – every time.

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