Here’s how park rangers are trying to prevent another record year for drowning deaths

Tribune Content Agency

DENVER — Cruising Chatfield Reservoir in a Colorado Parks and Wildlife patrol boat on Saturday, May 20, didn’t involve dramatic enforcement incidents for CPW officers Grant Brown and Tyler Hall. The air was cool and hazy with wildfire smoke, so there weren’t as many boats out as there would be on a busy summer day. The water temperature was 61 degrees, so there weren’t many jet skiers. There were no accidents, no boating under the influence arrests.

But there was a young man in a 50-year-old 10-foot aluminum boat that leaked. He had bought the boat six days earlier for $300 from a guy who sold it to him through Facebook. His first voyage wound up costing him another $100 for a citation because he didn’t have a life vest on the vessel — something that the state requires.

It may seem like a small matter. But for Brown, CPW’s boating safety manager, and Hall, a Chatfield State Park ranger, it wasn’t.

Last year Colorado saw a record 40 recreation-related drownings, and while some of those were caused by natural events such as flooding, 17 were related to boating. The previous record of 34 was set in 2020. There were 24 drownings in 2019 and 22 in 2021. (Just last weekend, a man died on the Colorado River in a rafting accident even though he was wearing a personal flotation device and a helmet.)

These are statistics that the rangers are well aware of, and one they want to avoid repeating as the summer season kicks off over Memorial Day weekend.

That’s why Brown is willing to let some minor safety violations go with a warning, but not when it comes to life jackets. So, when he and Hall spotted the boat, which was powered by a small battery-powered trolling motor, Brown hailed him. “You’ve got to have a life jacket at all times if you’re on the water,” Brown told him. “We’re going to come up alongside, OK?”

The boat clearly was leaking. Water was pooling in the stern.

“I was just checking to see if it was waterproof,” said the man, who did not want to be identified in this story. “Apparently it’s not.”

That’s one reason the life vest was so important, Brown explained. Cold-water immersion is a leading cause of drowning fatalities.

“You’re testing the boat and this water is freezing,” Brown told him. “If you did get in the water now, you’d be in big trouble without that life jacket.”

The man also didn’t have a required sound-making device and the boat wasn’t registered. Hall gave the man a free plastic whistle, a pamphlet with boating regulations and statutes, a plastic key container that floats and a ticket. He’ll have to take care of that in Jefferson County Court.

Children 12 and under must wear life vests at all times. Adults do not have to wear them, but there must be one in the boat for every person, and that applies to paddle craft. Of the 17 boating-related drownings in Colorado last year, Brown said, 10 involved paddle craft. Four were stand-up paddleboarders.

“I don’t think paddleboarders consider themselves vessels or boats,” Brown said. “They don’t realize, when they’re on that paddleboard, they do have to follow the same rules as any other vessel. Paddlers don’t understand, they’re like, ‘I’m fine, I can swim,’ and they get pretty upset over tickets. I tell them, ‘I’ve done this a long time, and a lot of people drown for doing the same thing you are doing.’ ”

Boating under the influence arrests on Colorado lakes are rare. Brown said there were only 13 in Colorado last year, but impaired boating remains a concern, and CPW rangers are trained to detect it.

“There are some really heinous BUIs that happen out here,” Brown said. One happened last year at Chatfield when a man Brown described as “hammered” crashed his jet ski into the dam. “Luckily he bailed. Broke his collarbone, but exited before the boat went up the ramp.”

One time at Cherry Creek Reservoir, Brown watched a drunken man running his jet ski full tilt near a pier where people were fishing, even as rangers in a CPW patrol boat frantically tried to wave him off.

“He catches every line of all the fishing poles, pulls them all in,” Brown said. “He hits a buoy and falls off. He gets on his jet ski and just keeps going. We get a patrol boat (to stop the jet skier) and he is so drunk, he’s stumbling around. His friends are like, ‘We told him not to get on the jet ski.’ You’ll get one or two of those every year, crazy, so drunk.”

Operation Dry Water, a national awareness and enforcement campaign to discourage boating under the influence with heightened enforcement, is coming to Colorado lakes July 1-3. The Fourth of July is on a Tuesday this year.

“A lot of times when we uncover a BUI, we’re contacting someone for a minor safety violation,” Hall said. “We’ll contact them for that minor thing and we may see alcohol containers or detect some indicators of impairment from the driver. Then we switch gears into that BUI enforcement mode. If we notice alcohol containers or slurred speech, bloodshot watery eyes, clues like that are things we’re trained to look for.”

When they see those signs, CPW officers conduct field sobriety tests. If boaters flunk those, they have an option of taking a breath test or blood test.

“We go off our observations and make an arrest,” Brown said. “Once you decide to choose one of those tests, you’re going to be put in handcuffs, like a DUI. We’ll take you to the jail and either do the breath test or a blood draw. You are booked into the jail. You do have to bond out. It does have the same bond as a DUI.”

A BUI conviction can affect a boater’s driver’s license in some states, but not in Colorado. And, there is no law in Colorado prohibiting open alcohol containers in boats.

“The tricky part of boating is, it’s not illegal for an operator to have a drink in their hand while they are driving a boat,” Brown said. “It’s just, they cannot be impaired. With the heat, the waves, sun and dehydration, I don’t think people realize how quickly the alcohol is catching up to them. They might have had a couple of drinks on the water, but they’re dehydrated. They say two or three drinks on the water affects you the same three or four would on land.”

Boaters don’t have to pass any kind of test in order to operate their vessels. CPW offers boating safety classes that cover laws, navigational rules, etiquette, tips for navigating trailers at boat ramps and what to do if stormy weather approaches, but they are not required to operate on Colorado lakes.

“Education is so important,” Brown said. “If you have the money to buy a boat, you can buy a boat that morning and be out on the water that afternoon, trying to figure it out.”

CPW rangers need to be on the lookout for unexpected hazards on the water, too. With Chatfield’s water level running 10 feet higher than at this time a year ago due to rain and snowmelt runoff, trees and other flotsam have emerged as potential hazards. With Hall at the helm of the boat, Brown pulled a six-foot tree and an eight-foot wooden 2 by 12 plank into the boat while they were out on patrol. Boaters beware.

“That’s been a big thing for us the past week or so, log patrol,” Hall said. “With all the high water coming in, the water level has risen and taken all that stuff that’s dead and down. We try to get it out of the water so it’s not hazardous, as much as we can, but you always have to keep an eye out for sure. We get entire trees out here that are floating. Something like that could do some major damage to your boat.”