Fun and danger await at Georgia lake

Dominick Cuocci throttled back. His 25-foot Harris pontoon boat abruptly slowed, its 250 Mercury murmuring in Lake Lanier's green chop.

Cuocci nodded toward a channel, a skinny pinch of water between the shore and an island. “Somewhere around here,” the Suwanee resident said. “That’s where it happened.”

It was the latest calamity on Lake Lanier, the July 15 deaths of two couples from Kentucky. The 38-foot boat in which they were riding overturned near Cocktail Cove on the lake's south shore. One witness said it flipped end-over-end like a kicked football. None of the victims —Melissa Renee McHahan, 45, Arthur Gene McMahan Jr., 46, Tammy Reece, 44, and Anthony Reece Jr., 44 — wore a life jacket.

The latest accident underscores a morbid fact: no lake in Georgia claims as many lives as the 38,000-acre lake 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta. So far this year, nine people have died in its waters — four killed earlier this month and five who have drowned.

What is it about Lake Lanier? The credulous say there's something not quite right about it — that it's a death trap, home to monstrous catfish and currents that snatch the unwary. Nonsense, say others — the death toll at the lake is simply a matter of numbers, With nearly 8 million visitors annually, it's bound to claim lives. Added to that: Boats, say people who patrol the lake, have become larger, faster, more dangerous.

The state Department of Natural Resources is investigating the accident. And though they haven't released their findings, investigators have said this much: the boat, a Skater 388, was traveling fast.

That’s no surprise to Cuoucci, who’s been boating on the lake since 1985.

“I have seen a lot of foolishness,” he said. “There is no ocean around us, so everyone comes here. This is a major party lake.”

Cuocci, 61, edged the throttle forward a bit. The boat surged, churning a white wake. He smiled. “I’m somewhat of a partier myself.”

DNR keeps statistics on all its major lakes. The numbers include accidents — they're called "incidents" — as well as drownings, boating fatalities and BUI (boating under the influence). Consider its numbers compared to Lake Allatoona's, another lake not far from metro Atlanta:

Five years ago, Lanier recorded 43 boating incidents; Allatoona had seven. Drownings? The toll at Lanier hit 10; Allatoona had seven. Lanier’s boating fatalities reached seven; Allatoon’s was two. BUI: Lanier 32; Allatoona, 13.

Last year, the trend remained steady. Boating incidents: Lanier 31, Allatoona 18. Drownings: Lanier seven, Allatoona three. Fatalities: Lanier two, Allatoona none. BUI: Lanier 70, Allatoona 18.

The numbers don't surprise Joanna Cloud, executive director of the nonprofit Lake Lanier Association. "It's like driving a car," said Cloud, who represents a group focused on protecting the lake and its watershed. "There are some who are more responsible than others."

The state of Georgia two years ago began requiring boating education for operators. The statute applies only to those born after Jan. 1, 1998. Legislators revised the law after three high-profile fatalities on the lake: the deaths of Jake and Griffin Prince, 9 and 13, and 11-year-old Kile Glover. The Prince boys died in June 2012 after a speeding boat hit their pontoon vessel. Kile, whose mother once was married to the recording artist Usher, died a month later when a personal watercraft hit him.

Cloud would like to see more cops on the water, issuing tickets for drunken and/or dangerous behavior.

“Speed and alcohol, they ignite each other,” she said.

That’s always at the back of her mind when her oldest lobbies to head out on the lake. He’s 18. He’s taken safety courses. He knows the intricacies of operating the family’s 21-foot Hurricane. He knows to watch out for the other guy(s).

And still…

“We don’t let him take the boat out (by himself),” she said. “I’m not comfortable with it.”

He's heard the stories — the long-lost car discovered with a woman still in it (true), the man-sized catfish feasting on the unfortunate victims of a chicken-truck wreck (perhaps not so true). Yeah, he's also heard that the lake is haunted.

Lt. Judd Smith, who works for DNR’s law enforcement division, has to laugh at that.

“When you get that many people in one place, things are going to happen,” said Smith, who patrolled Lanier for seven years.” “That’s like saying (Interstate) 285 is haunted.”

Lanier, he noted, is not Georgia's largest lake — Hartwell, straddling the SC-Georgia line, has that distinction — but it is the most heavily used. Its shore is dotted with homes, marinas, restaurants and other businesses catering to the lake set.

“There’s just a lot more entertainment on Lanier,” he said. “It’s simply because the amount of (boat) traffic is a lot higher than at other lakes.”

DNR Capt. Johnny Johnson, who’s been enforcing boating laws for 29 years, concurs. “There’s practically no boating law on the books that we’ve not seen violated from time to time,” Johnson said.

And this. “Boats,” he said, “are bigger.”

Johnson also believes there is more activity on the lake this year than last. July has been hot and oppressive; the lake, cool and inviting. “When you have these kind of conditions, a lot of people come to the water.”

Lake Lanier has its share of boneheads. That’s the assessment of Trudy West, whose family has a 106-foot houseboat at the lake, as well as a runabout and a personal watercraft. On a recent sweltering afternoon she walked along the long dock where the Wests keep their boats. With her was Samantha, an amiable golden Lab.

Nearby, two of her kids splashed in the lake. “They have on life vests,” West said, pointedly.

She wonders why more people do not. “Just because you can buy a boat,” she said, “doesn’t give you common sense.”

Mark Hayes, another lake regular, has come to the same conclusion. A Buford boat salesman, he sat in his Ford Explorer at a public boat ramp while West watched her children play. On a trailer behind him were two Yamaha WaveRunners he planned to show two prospective buyers. Nearby, a man eased a red-and-white Pro Nautique into the lake.

“Some people keep their cars under control and some people don’t,” said Hayes, who’s been boating on the lake since 1977. “It’s the same with boats.”

Far off, in the middle of Lanier, a speeding boat kicked up a geyser tail of water, an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence.

"It's not just this lake," he said. "It's all lakes."