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Sense of responsibility sinks at nation's shorelines

A jet ski crosses in front of a houseboat near Copper Rock on Shuswap Lake near Salmon Arm, B.C. on Thursday July 8, 2010. A deadly tragic accident on the lake saw a speedboat become embedded inside a house boat last Saturday night on the Shuswap Lake killing one and injuring eight others.

Jeff Bassett for The Globe and Mail/jeff bassett The Globe and Mail

From the deck of his home on Shuswap Lake, Ted Bacigalupo often sits and counts the boats that pack the popular, X-shaped body of water in the British Columbia Interior.

There are 40-foot speed boats zooming along at 100 kilometres an hour, darting among jet skis and sailboats. Hundreds of houseboats, some three storeys high and outfitted with onboard hot tubs, drift lazily toward notorious party spot Neilson Beach, where it's not unusual for anchored vessels to employ stern-faced bouncers.

What Mr. Bacigalupo also sees is that a sense of responsibility often sinks at the nation's shorelines. He keeps track of the tragedies. The nine-metre power boat that ran into Copper Island at full speed, killing a 24-year-old. The houseboat operator who backed up over a jet ski, its propeller dismembering the driver. The Saturday afternoon skippers who fall overboard after having a little bit too much to drink, and now last weekend's accident, which claimed the life of 53-year-old Ken Brown when a speedboat rammed into his houseboat.

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"Every year we have fatalities on this lake," he said. "We're fed up. People come here to have a good time, not to end up at a funeral."

<iframe width="600" height="350" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" marginheight="0" marginwidth="0" src=",-88.945312&spn=36.237331,105.46875&z=3&output=embed"></iframe><br /><small>View <a href=",-88.945312&spn=36.237331,105.46875&z=3&source=embed" style="color:#0000FF;text-align:left">Recent boating accidents in Canada</a> in a larger map</small>

Across the country, boaters like Mr. Bacigalupo are starting to demand a response. On popular lakes from Kamloops to the Kawarthas, the water is often treated like a lawless expanse, where speed and alcohol go unchallenged and boater safety means a couple of life jackets, thrown below deck with the beer.

Some blame a lack of enforcement, and say boaters behave badly because no one's stopping them. But even in Ontario, where marine patrols are more common and penalties can be stiff, police say boaters fail to appreciate the risks they are taking.

"Every time there's a mishap there's a lot of focus, and people are a little bit more cautious for a while," said Mr. Bacigalupo. "Then everyone lets their guard down and it's taken for granted that we've all learned our lesson."

About 200 Canadians die in accidents on the water each year, with another 6,000 suffering non-fatal injuries. In B.C. alone, 16 people have died in boating accidents since 2005.

Transport Canada does not keep statistics on boating accidents, but said it plans to start tracking fatalities, injuries and regulatory violations to better understand safety issues on the water.

Last September, the agency finished phasing in a 10-year plan to make mandatory a pleasure craft operator card. It was never meant to serve as a licence, but was intended to ensure all boaters have at least a basic understanding of water safety.

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But the online system introduced by the federal government, which accredited private companies to give quick, multiple-choice tests, was deemed too simple, and a tougher, standardized test will be introduced this September.

Some blame the program itself for providing boaters with false confidence, and say it has actually made people on the water less knowledgeable.

Vahé Vassilian, chairman of the Quebec Safe Boating Council, says some first-time boaters now balk at classroom learning. "They say, 'Who needs to spend four hours sitting in a class if you can go on the Internet and get around the test?' Anybody can pass it. It you're a little intelligent, not much, you can pass. I know people who've never been on a boat and they can pass the exam."

It leaves experienced boaters like Mr. Vassilian worried. "I don't feel safe on the water, because I know what's happening all around me," he said. "You don't become a boater because you have a licence."

Instead of a licensing system, some safety critics have said the federal government should concentrate on making life jackets mandatory.

In Ontario, Sergeant Karen Harrington, marine program coordinator for the OPP, said she continues to see fatalities caused by fundamental stupidity, usually involving people who go out on the water without a life jacket.

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"If they had life jackets on, the likelihood that they would have saved themselves or had enough time for somebody to come to their aid, the lives saved could be significant," she said.

The police have already pulled over more than 10,000 boats in Ontario this season and logged more than 2,700 patrol hours. The province's boater safety laws are among the country's strictest: You can have your driver's licence suspended if you're caught drunk behind the helm. Still, tragedies abound. This month, a 39-year-old father drowned in front of his two young sons on Lake Dalrymple. The children were wearing life jackets but he was not.

In B.C., Mike Farnworth, the NDP's public safety critic, said Mr. Brown's death over the Canada Day weekend and other accidents across the country should be a wakeup call for all levels of government.

"It will put focus on the issue and I think it's about time," he said. "The province should be reviewing the rules and regulations we have in place, and we should be looking at what other jurisdictions are doing."

Sergeant Michael Lariviere, an RCMP officer with West Coast Marine Services, said most of the problems in B.C. occur on the province's Interior lakes, which draw young people from Vancouver and Calgary with little boating experience and an anything-goes state of mind.

He said police are just as responsible for policing this phenomenon as they are an influx of concert-goers at a summer music festival.

"Even though it's a lake, it's still the responsibility of some detachment," he said. "If there's never any highway patrol out, the speeds are going to increase and accidents are going to go up. It always comes down to manpower and resources."

Corporal Annie Linteau, a spokesperson for the RCMP, said they have just 95 boats to patrol the province, compared to more than 120 in Ontario.

B.C. also has only three full-time marine units, all of which are dedicated to the coastal region and border integrity. In the Interior, officers trained for water transport are also responsible for regular patrol duties on land.

"If your detachment is already small, they can't just be on the lake," she said. "We patrol the waterways just like we patrol the roadways and there's unfortunately still fatal accidents. You simply can not be everywhere, 24 hours a day."

Cindy Rose, a spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Public Safety, said the province is not considering any new boating safety campaigns or legislation, and said their focus is on toughening drinking and driving laws.

But on Shuswap Lake, Mr. Bacigalupo is tired of excuses.

At this week's meeting of the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, of which he is a member, council will be developing a lake management plan and drafting a letter to the province demanding action.

"They need to start paying attention to this lake," he said. "They need to have a presence on this lake, they need to patrol and enforce and they need to issue tickets and fines, and they need to educate the public."

The region has already been affected by declines in the forestry and mining industries, he said, and many residents now rely on tourism for their livelihood and suffer the fallout of every boating accident.

"It's party central," he said. "And yet many people come here for a Shuswap experience and often they leave with nothing but bad memories."

With reports from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal and Anthony Reinhart in Bobcaygeon, Ont.

Enforcement on the water

The Ontario Provincial Police patrol 110,398 square kilometres of waterways, including some of Canada's busiest recreational boating areas. The OPP fleet includes 128 vessels, from small SeaDoo jet boats to 32-foot metal launches that ply the Great Lakes.

Marine officers conduct random boat checks, respond to boating emergencies and check on remote cottages, which can be prone to break-ins.

So far this year, the OPP have investigated nine fatal boating incidents involving 10 deaths (all males between 13 and 67 years old)

As of this week, marine officers had logged 2,760 patrol hours, checked 10,820 vessels and 2,706 cottages.

Charges laid include:

  • 16 for impaired boating
  • 11 for operating a boat over the legal blood-alcohol limit
  • 347 Liquor Licence Act charges (open liquor in a boat, etc.)
  • 461 federal marine charges (missing safety equipment, inadequate lights, etc.)
  • 29 other federal charges (drug possession, Fisheries Act offences)
  • 45 for provincial offences (littering, trespassing, etc.)

Anthony Reinhart

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