The summer season is now underway at Smith Mountain Lake with the arrival of Memorial Day. Crowds of boaters took to the water this past weekend for the start of what is expected to be another busy year.
The Department of Wildlife Resources is increasing its patrols on the lake in to keep an eye on the increased traffic. Last year saw a substantial increase in boats on the water and conservation officers are expecting the same high volume again.
“I think we are going to have another busy year,” said Eric Dotterer, conservation officer for DWR.
Conservation officers will be patrolling the lake throughout the summer with additional officers during heavy traffic times such as weekends and holidays like this past Memorial Day weekend. Dotterer said the DWR can have as many as seven patrol boats and two PWCs patrolling the lake at any given time.
This will be the 13th year patrolling Smith Mountain Lake for Dotterer. In that time, he has seen a lot of changes.
“I think the lake is a lot safer now,” Dotterer said.
Back when he first started, the boater safety education law had just started and many people had not yet taken a boating education class. Dotterer said he has seen a noticeable improvement in lake safety as the law was phased in until it was fully implemented in 2016.
While safety has improved, Dotterer said there are still issues that conservation officers deal with on a regular basis. One of the biggest, he said, is people who ride on a boat’s bow, transom or gunwale—basically anything other than a boats seats.
“The most dangerous thing you can do is be outside those seating compartments,” Dotterer said.
In additional to being dangerous, sitting in those areas while the boat is moving can lead to the boat operator being charged with reckless boating, Dotterer said. The maximum penalty for a reckless boating charge is $2,500 fine or a year in jail.
Another issue is boaters out after dark that use docking lights to navigate around the lake. While the lights are brighter, Dotterer said they impact night vision of the boat operator as well as any other boat operators on the water. The lights can also obscure navigation lights which make it difficult to see what direction a boat is headed.
“Using dock lights is one of the most common stops we make,” Dotterer said.
In recent years Dotterer has seen an increase in boaters wearing life jackets. While it is not required by law to be wearing one while on the water, he still encourages everyone on a boat to put one on.
Boaters are only required to have a life jacket available for everyone onboard. Dotterer said it may not be enough to have one nearby if tragedy strikes. In those cases, the best bet would be to be wearing one.
“It is not worth chancing it,” Dotterer said.
According to DWR statistics on boating related fatalities for 2020, only one of the 21 individuals who died in a boating incident was wearing a life jacket.
Another positive trend Dotterer has noticed is the number of designated boat operators that refrain from alcohol. He said boater seem to be much more responsible with alcohol than they were in the past.
In order to continue pushing to make sure that trend continues, Dotterer said the DWR will continue its tradition of holding boating safety checkpoints around the lake throughout the summer. Held during busy times of the year such as holiday weekends, the checkpoints allow conservation officers an opportunity to assure that boat operators are being safe and alcohol free.
In order to assure they are following all the rules this summer, Dotterer encourages boaters to download the DWR’s Go Outdoors app available for mobile phones. In addition to hunting and fishing tips, there is also a section in the app on boating regulations as well as boat ramp locations and upcoming boating safety courses.