In June, law enforcement searched Lake Lanier for the body of a boy killed when an alleged drunk boater slammed a speeding craft into his family’s pontoon.
Search crews eventually discovered 13-year-old Griffin Prince. They also found something else — more drunk boaters. The crews arrested the drivers of several vessels passing the accident scene, charging them with boating under the influence.
The tragic deaths of Griffin and his 9-year-old brother Jake, and the arrest of the man piloting the other boat, received intense publicity. But it didn’t deter some from drinking and boating.
Since that June 18 accident, Department of Natural Resources rangers have stepped up writing tickets, issuing more than 40 BUI tickets at Lake Lanier. That’s more than rangers at Lanier wrote in any entire year since 2007.
Not only have BUIs increased at Lake Lanier, citations of all kinds so far this year are nearly double that of all of last year.
DNR Capt. Mark Padgett shrugged when asked about this summer’s increase in enforcement at the lake.
“It’s not like there has been any saturation teams here,” said Padgett, who oversees DNR enforcement in the 19 counties of north Georgia. “These are the same guys we’ve had.”
The agency has added three rangers to his district since last summer, two of them coming on since July 1, for a total at 26. Of that, about 10 rangers are designated to patrol Lake Lanier, with others coming in during peak holiday weekends. But the district has seven other lakes, so stealing away rangers assigned to other bodies of water just won’t cut it, he said. “I can’t rob Peter to pay Paul.”
It’s difficult for a handful of 22-foot DNR boats to create much of a presence on a 38,000-acre with more than 25,000 boats and countless more visiting.
“Frankly,” Padgett added, “there’s a lot of them and very few of us.”
Issam Dalloul, a businessman and new boat owner, agrees.
“I’ve never seen a policeman on the lake,” he said while sitting with some friends on his pontoon docked at Sunset Cove, the lake’s gathering spot. “Maybe if there is more presence, there would be more respect for the rules.”
On a busy holiday weekend, hundreds, if not thousands of boats will filter in and out of the cove. A visit last Sunday, found a couple hundred boats bobbing in the tide, with dozens tied together, stereos blasting, beers chugged and a few bikini-clad women showing their dance moves and, sometimes, more.
“It’s known as the Strip Club on the Water,” said Hall County Solicitor Stephanie Woodard, one of the prosecutors from several counties who oversees prosecutions of BUIs and other infractions occurring on the lake.
Woodard has noticed more cases coming her way. She doesn’t believe the increase is due to the deaths of the Prince boys. Instead, she believes it’s due to a high number of deaths last year on the lake.
“Last year, we had 17 fatalities on the lake,” she said. “The water is a very unforgiving place.”
Ten deaths were drownings not connected to boating. Usually, they are people swimming from a beach or a dock.
“People get focused on boating safety, but you’re two times as likely to drown on Lake Lanier than die in a boating accident,” said Joanna Cloud, the executive director of the Lake Lanier Association advocacy group.
Since 2002, there have been 58 drownings at Lake Lanier not connected with a vessel and 26 boat-related fatalities.
“This lake has a very, very high recreational use. There are 8 million people a year coming here,” said Cloud, a Cumming resident who has been coming to the lake for decades. “I definitely think awareness of safety is heightened on the part of boaters. But water safety needs to be focused overall for everyone.”
Boating safety awareness may have increased, but it certainly hasn’t sunk in with everyone, as evidenced by a recent afternoon on the lake with DNR rangers Cpl. Jason Roberson and Mark Stephens.
A pontoon with three guys aboard speeds through a no-wake zone in a tight, busy passage under a bridge near Sunset Cove. The boaters didn’t realize their infraction. It turns out they were newcomers who had just rented the craft.
Minutes later, a man is set to pull his son on a inner tube from his Jet Ski. Problem is, he has no spotter on the back, as required by law. Again, the officers are greeted by blank stares. They dispense another friendly verbal warning.
Finally, they spot a man in a speed boat pulling a woman on a float. She’s hanging on to the side of the boat near the back, maybe four feet from the propeller.
“It would pull you in and chew you up,” Roberson warns the woman as she climbs aboard her boat.
“We wouldn’t have found all the pieces,” Stephens says to his partner as they pull away, shaking his head at the things people do on a sunny day at the lake.
“People’s idea is, ‘You can’t get hurt, it’s the lake,’ ” said Roberson, who is the district’s leader in writing BUIs.
Traversing an open body of water on Lanier on Sunday afternoon finds a dizzying array of boats crisscrossing in an endless amalgam of routes.
“There’s no lanes, no rules, no speed limits,” said Billy Fulson, a young boater who likes to drive race cars for a hobby. “It seems like someone does something stupid every time I come out here.”
Boat-on-boat collisions are relatively rare, about five a year. Personal watercraft, like Jet Skis, are also involved in about as many collisions.
So far this year, there have been eight boat-on-boat collisions, the most in a decade. Padgett and Cloud believe the increase may be because the economy has caused more people to spend their free time playing on the lake, rather than traveling elsewhere to vacation. Padgett also said more people these days seem to be more cognizant of the problem of drunk boating. He said he sees more designated drivers.
Rangers Roberson and Stephens say the best way to catch drunk boaters is to stay busy and observant, as one boater said, for people doing something stupid.
The rangers are friendly and funny, engaging in polite banter with boaters, who are almost always in a good mood until they see the flashing blue light heading their way.
“These people work all week long,” said Stephens. “Last thing they want on their day off is someone from the government telling them what they can and can’t do.”
But, he said, you can’t drink too much and drive a boat on Lake Lanier. He has no problem telling them that.
Lake Lanier Accidents and Citations
Year…BUIs*…Boating Accidents…Boating Injuries…Boating Deaths
*Boating under the influence
**Figures from Jan. 1, 2012 to Aug. 24
Source: Georgia Department of Natural Resources