Days of rain and wet spring weekends, have given way to summer, the ideal time to boat, paddle or simply float on a tube down one of central Illinois’ rivers.

Two years ago this June, two men out for that good time tipped from their crafts and drowned in the Mackinaw River’s storm-swollen currents — one from an inner tube, the other from a rented kayak.

How much water craft experience or education either victim had wasn’t enough to prevent their fatal mistake of entering a river unaware of its threatening conditions — and, in the tuber’s case, without a life jacket.

Any course in water safety emphasizes proper life jackets among its first lessons. This year’s National Safe Boating Week in late May carried the theme, “All About Life Jackets. Boat Smart, Boat Safe, Wear It,” said Jeff Wilson, central Illinois division commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, based in East Peoria.

It’s a message of common sense, said Wilson. As director of the agency that provides state-certified classes in boating safety in the area, he offers another for those who pilot motorized craft on the Illinois River.

“Do not see how close you can get to a barge.”

Lessons from those safety basics to the more intricate elements of boating — including navigation, buoy and sign recognition on the Illinois and larger area lakes, how to trailer a boat and how dangerous carbon monoxide seeps into as it idles — make up the curricula of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) boating certification course.

Illinois, however, does not require adult boaters to take it.

“You won’t hear us agree” with that, Nelson said.

He doesn’t know how many out of 100 given Peoria-area boaters have taken the course, either through the Auxiliary, from a DNR instructor or online, a service the DNR offers. “Not enough,” Nelson said.

Since last year, however, state law requires anyone under 18 to be certified pilots, he said. Teen-aged boaters now must pass the equivalent of a driver’s education course.

That, and a resurgence in recreational boating over the past several years, has fueled an increase in the number of classes the Auxiliary teaches in its district, which stretches from western Indiana to eastern Iowa and into northeast Missouri.

Many of the students sign up through boat clubs and, increasingly, Boy Scout troops, Nelson said. Pilots between ages 10, the youngest allowed to steer a craft, and 17 without a DNR certificate face the equivalent of a ticket for driving without a license should the police pull them over. 

And that happens, said Mike Johnson, chief of the Fondulac Park Police Department in East Peoria.

Water law enforcement “is my forte,” said Johnson, a certified water law instructor for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board who teaches the subject to police in Tazewell, Peoria, Woodford and Marshall counties.

His small department is equipped with three boats to deploy on the Illinois, including a 30-footer with side sonar used to locate drowning victims, and smaller craft for rescue operations.

“We’ve had two rescues so far” this year, Johnson said. He saved a dog trapped on an ice floe that had broken from the banks in the Woodford County Conservation Area and, in spring, two duck hunters whose flat boat stuck on a sand bank before dawn in Woodford.

“They had a cellphone and a flashlight,” two essential communication forms for small-craft boaters, he said. “They also had told others where they would be” on the river, a third and highly advised safety tip.

When the summer season picks up, boaters will spot river patrols by DNR conservation officers. Johnson also patrols the Illinois, in search of clear violations such as under-age or intoxicated pilots. Those officers also will inspect boats for required safety equipment. 

“We spend a lot of time on education for boaters” on the water, he said. “We do inspections for life jackets, signal devices, anchors, radios” and safety lights.

Pekin and Peoria, meanwhile, equip their cities’ fire departments with boats for rescue and the rare need to fight a boat fire. Peoria’s department also features the Peoria Dive Rescue Team of 15 emergency response divers. 

Its largest craft, a 26-footer with an aluminum hull, “is basically a fire engine on the water,” said Ron Jones, the department’s division chief of operations. “That thing does scoot.” It can be used to tow stuck boats “if we have to, though we don’t like to,” Jones said.

From experience, “Most boaters know where the shallow water is” on the Illinois and steer clear of it, he said.

Experience, Nelson said, is of greater value when it’s based on the education the Auxiliary and DNR provide.

“If you see a buoy that’s marking rocks, or a sign that marks where (scuba) divers are” on a lake, “you might want to know what they mean,” he said.


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