Bill Russell wants to spread the word about boating safety. It’s a topic he takes very seriously, and one in which he’s well versed. While in the Coast Guard, Russell worked at search-and-rescue stations in Michigan and patrolled the North Pacific and Bering Sea aboard a Coast Guard cutter. His final assignment placed him at the Marine Safety Office in Chicago, where he was a marine casualties investigator.
Russell draws upon this experience as president of the Chicago Maritime School, which he founded in 2003. The school offers a full range of maritime education courses, including basic boating classes for recreational boaters and Coast Guard Captain’s license courses. In addition to his work at the school, Russell spent more than 10 years lobbying for more stringent boat safety laws for the State of Illinois. Last year, the hard work paid off with the passing of new boat safety legislation, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2015. The law now requires anyone born after 1996 to take a basic boat safety class prior to operating any powered watercraft, including boats and jet skis. Additionally, a boat that is towing a skier or someone in any type of vessel (an inner tube for example) must now display an orange flag. Lastly, the law strengthened the penalties for boating while intoxicated. “It’s now tied to your driver’s license if you get stopped or arrested for boating while intoxicated,” says Russell. “It also strengthened the penalties for repeat offenders.”
Overall, nearly 50 percent of boating incidents are caused by impaired or inattentive actions. These accidents can be easily avoided, Russell says, by being prepared and planning ahead. “First and foremost, take a boating safety class,” says Russell. “What people will learn in this class will help prevent most of the things that could happen on the water.” A float plan is a crucial step, too, says Russell. A float plan is a document you create—forms are available online—that details information about your boat, the number of people onboard, your departure and arrival dates, destination, and the course you’re taking. Leave the float plan with a trusted friend or family member, someone who can file it with the Coast Guard should you fail to arrive at your destination or make emergency contact.
This next tip seems like common sense, but is often overlooked: Monitor the weather. “When we look at the number of people who are hurt or killed in southern Lake Michigan, most were hurt or killed by exposure to the weather, such as hypothermia from the cold water temperature,” says Russell. “The rule of thumb is you have a 50 percent chance of wading in water for 50 minutes without a life preserver.”
Overall, the best way to avoid a dangerous situation is to have an emergency plan in advance. “Think about the types of things that may go wrong with your vessel and think through them,” says Russell. “Know how to use your equipment—your fire extinguisher, flare gun, and marine radio,” advises Russell, who also notes that it’s important to have your visual distress signals or flares handy in case of emergency. If anything bad happens, the first step is to have everyone on board put life jackets on, and then try to manage the situation. “If you wind up in the water, stay with the boat,” says Russell. “If you have a life jacket on and you stay with your boat, there’s a much better chance of the Coast Guard finding you.”
–By Jenny Quill // Illustration by Kirsten Ulve