Heading to the lake? Know the laws to have safe fun in the sun

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

After spotting one teenager seated on a jet ski and another in the water, Game Warden 1st Class Kevin Goss and his partner slowed their boat, then asked if the two boys needed help.

“We’re fine, sir,” one teen said. “Just swimming.”

After confirming both boys had the life vests required for jet ski riders, Goss and Cpl. Dan Schay, who work for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, determined there was no violation. The two continued their patrols on Lake Lanier, one of the busiest lakes in the Southeast.

“I just wanted to check on y’all and make sure you’re good to go,” Goss said.

Memorial Day weekend is typically the kickoff to summer on Georgia’s lakes and rivers. But this year’s busy season kicked off even earlier, thanks to sunny skies and folks eager to enjoy the outdoors as the nation emerges from the pandemic.

Statewide, at least 15 drownings have been reported in Georgia waters this year, including three at Lake Lanier, according to the DNR. Tuesday afternoon, recovery efforts continued in Gwinnett County after a kayaker was reported missing from the Chattahoochee Rivers. Several other people have been injured, including two teenagers from a Gwinnett family who were seriously burned in a boat explosion on Mother’s Day.

The upcoming holiday weekend is expected to be another busy one on state waters, and DNR wardens and local law enforcement agencies will be ready. During the 2020 Memorial Day weekend, three people were killed and 19 injured in state waters, and 35 people were arrested for boating under the influence, according to the DNR. But with planning and knowledge, it’s possible to stay safe on the water.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“If they follow the rules of safety, there’s a much better chance of having a great day at the lake,” DNR spokesman Mark McKinnon said.

And that includes at Lanier. McKinnon has heard the rumors about Lanier being the “haunted lake” because of the number of deaths reported yearly. The 38,000-acre lake borders Hall, Gwinnett, Lumpkin, Dawson and Forsyth counties and is the largest in Georgia. With more than 11,000 visitors each year, there are bound to be incidents, McKinnon said, reasoning, “It’s the law of numbers.”

Still, most incidents on the lake can be avoided. If you’re operating a watercraft, it’s imperative to follow the “rules of the road” just like when you’re in a car, the DNR’s Sgt. Adam Loudermilk said.

That means staying to the right side of the channel, just like on the highway, Loudermilk said.

“Don’t just watch out for you, watch out for the other person, too,” he said.

Boaters should have U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vests available for everyone aboard, and those under 13 must wear them when the boat is in motion. Check vests for proper fit before hitting the water, Loudermilk advised. Also, make sure to have a fire extinguisher, as well as a throwable device that anyone in the water who’s distressed can grab ahold of to stay afloat, he said.

Proper boat maintenance is also important, particularly after boats have been sitting all winter, the DNR said.

Though Georgia doesn’t have an open-container law for boats, lake-goers can still get charged with boating under the influence. If your outing will involve alcohol, increase everyone’s safety by selecting a “designated skipper” who won’t be drinking, Loudermilk said.

And for those planning to take a dip in the water, remember the temperature outside may be steamy, but that doesn’t mean the water will be warm. The shock of cold water can paralyze even strong swimmers, Loudermilk warned.

“It just happens so quick,” he said. “They get from shallow water to deep fast.”

Late last week, the body of a 19-year-old was pulled from Lake Lanier after he went underwater during a swim and never resurfaced, officials said. The drowning was reported at Young Deer Creek in Forsyth County, and investigators believe the man, later identified as Sathvik Kothapu of Cumming, was trying to swim across the cove but got tired and couldn’t make it.

This weekend, DNR wardens will be out on the water, working to help others enjoy their holiday. With a sunny weather forecast, the DNR expects crowds.

“Come out and enjoy yourself,” Cpl. Schay said. “Just do it safely.”


1. When boating and fishing, wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket.

2. Do not swim or boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

3. Always swim with a buddy in a supervised area and know your limits.

4. On a boat, obey the 100-foot law to avoid collisions.

5. Never take your eyes off small children and stay within an arms-length of them.

Source: Georgia Department of Natural Resources