For boaters, it’s ‘the Wild West’

Lanier visitors, legal experts describe an atmosphere ripe for accidents

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates 7.5 million people visit Lake Lanier each year. And on some summer weekends, it seems as if they all congregate in Sunset Cove, an inlet on the southern end of metro Atlanta’s water playground.

Sugar Hill resident Mark Craig, getting an early start to the weekend, guided his 34-foot cruiser, the Blonde Chum, into Sunset Cove on Thursday evening. He swept his arm across the bow and said hundreds of boats clog the area on a typical Saturday.

“This is party cove,” he said.

Craig smiled as he drove his five passengers — four in bikinis, all of whom he met at the lake — to a restaurant on shore. The cove is a wonderful place to tie up to friends’ boats and spend a day bobbing in the sun and sipping libations. If they drink too much, no sweat, Craig said. They just drop anchor and sleep overnight at the spot.

But the light summertime chatter of visitors to the lake has grown somber following a boat collision Monday that killed two boys as their family enjoyed a late-night cruise. Jake Prince, 9, died of massive injuries and his brother Griffin, 13, was thrown into the dark waters. His body has not been recovered. Paul J. Bennett, 44, the man who allegedly piloted the speeding 21-foot boat that hit them, has been charged with boating under the influence and could face charges of homicide by vessel.

“It’s amazing there’s not a lot more accidents out here,” Craig said. “You have lots of people on random boats with random levels of knowledge. You don’t have to have a license. All you have to do is buy [a boat].”

The Prince family were no novices on the water; they own a boat retail center at the lake. But summer also brings to the lake legions of newcomers and the unknowing. As summer unfolds, crowds, booze and inexperienced boaters can combine to create an atmosphere with sometimes deadly consequences. With a conservative estimate of 25,000 boats on the lake and countless visitors, it almost becomes a nautical game of Russian roulette.

The crash last week was such a case of horrific misfortune. On Monday nights, the 38,000-acre lake is usually without much boat traffic, but last week the two boats’ paths crossed. Department of Natural Resources investigators with jurisdiction at the lake have not released many details about what happened in the collision.

The impact from the V-shaped hull of the speeding Sea Fox fishing boat peeled away much of the front side of the slower moving 28-foot pontoon boat that carried nine children and four adults, investigators say.

A review of DNR reports of incidents on Lake Lanier over the last two years shows that if anything can happen, it will. Last year, according to a review of the reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there were 28 boating-related accidents that resulted in injuries or that involved alcohol.

The accidents ranged from water skiers twisting knees or suffering heart attacks, to dangerous Jet Ski antics, to drunks running aground — to a horrific crash last August that mirrored Monday’s.

In that accident, a man pulling his daughter on water skis was coming out of a tributary when his boat slammed into another operated by a grandfather pulling children on an inner tube. A boy was catapulted from the tubing boat and drowned. His 12-year-old cousin suffered a fractured skull and facial bones and lacerations to her liver.

The driver of the boat with the skier admitted to investigators he had been drinking beer earlier but he was not charged because his blood-alcohol level was virtually nil when he was finally tested, said Christopher Simon, a lawyer representing the granddaughter.

The grandfather was cited by the DNR for not yielding. His boat was hit on the same side, the right front, as was the Prince family pontoon. Technically, a boat is supposed to yield the waterway to another coming from its right, Simon said, although there are exceptions based on the size of the body of water, speed and visibility.

But many, if not most boaters, are unclear on the rules, he said.

“There’s no licensing procedures; it’s the Wild West out there,” said Simon. “Boaters don’t know the rules. They don’t know what to do — just not hit each other.’’

Lofty goals met

Lake Lanier was built in the 1950s, as the nation moved to tame its rivers. The work was seen as a way to control flooding, provide electrical power, ease navigation and maybe even provide a little recreation.

Those lofty goals were especially met with regard to recreation.

Over time, metro Atlanta grew to more than 5 million residents, and those land-locked souls needed somewhere to go for their water experience. To an increasing number, a short drive north with a trailer and a watercraft was the way to do it.

More than 30 years ago, Joanna Cloud drove with her dad from Dunwoody to hit the lake in a rented motorboat. She watched as other families increasingly did the same through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

Today, the Cumming resident and mother of three is executive director of the Lake Lanier Association advocacy group.

Like many others interviewed, Cloud generally tries to stay clear of busy weekends and prefers to find uncrowded coves on her 21-foot ski boat. She also tries to give a wide berth to other boats. She thinks most boaters out there are respectful to others, but many just don’t have a clue.

“Water travel is one of the last bastions of unregulated travel,” she said. “You get on the water and do whatever you want, whichever way you want to go.” They get out and it’s ‘Wahoo!’ ”

The lake is still a huge floating party, although it may have a bit more structure.

Lake Lanier, named for Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, is a scenic collection of inlets and islands, surrounded by greenery and clusters of lakefront homes that sell for $500,000 and up.

Skiers look for open straightaways while fishermen seek out placid coves. Fun-loving partygoers look for like-minded boaters to float and socialize with at places such as “Cocktail Cove” and “Sunset Cove” on the crowded southern end. The combination of swimsuits, drinking and hormones has given the lake an image that is hard to live down.

“Cocktail Cove was absolutely unregulated,” Cloud said. “I think Sunset Cove is a bit tamer. It’s not ‘Girls Gone Wild’ anymore.”

DNR statistics show there have been an average of 45 boating incidents, 29 injuries and two deaths each year for the past decade. About half of the injuries last year came from Jet Ski or skiing mishaps, according to a review of records. Alcohol may play a factor, but it was cited in just a handful of reports from those cases last year that included injuries and deaths.

There are prosecutions. A Forsyth County jury this year convicted University of Georgia student Taylor Hammill of serious injury by a vessel after his personal watercraft plowed into another driven by a friend. The woman suffered a severe brain injury and Hammill, who prosecutors said was drinking, was sentenced to six months.

The length of the sentence angers prosecutors.

“What baffles me is that if you make someone a vegetable while driving a car you can get 15 years, but do it in a boat and all you can get is five,” said Forsyth Assistant District Attorney Mike Mahoney, who prosecuted the case.

DNR rangers reduced

Last year, DNR patrols issued 32 boating under the influence tickets at Lake Lanier but many people say authorities could do that in a month if they had the manpower. The agency wrote about twice as many BUI tickets there a decade ago.

Budget cuts have reduced the number of DNR rangers patrolling the state’s major lakes. The agency has about 200 rangers, down about 20 percent in the past few years.

Boat operators are allowed to have an open container of alcohol and are presumed drunk if they have a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent. The limit for driving a motor vehicle is 0.08 percent, a discrepancy that some state legislators have tried yet failed to remedy over the past several years.

Collisions that result in deaths are still relatively rare, although in April a man was killed and a woman seriously injured when their pontoon was struck by a 21-foot ski boat late one Saturday night.

The accident occurred not far from last week’s crash. DNR officials said the investigation is continuing and would not say if alcohol was involved or if there will be any charges.

Attorney Simon said three ingredients are culprits in most boating accidents: alcohol, speed and darkness.

“At night, there’s no headlights, you just have running lights,” he said. “There’s no depth perception with running lights.”

Also, many who use the lake just don’t think.

Holly Hunter was out last week with her new 19-foot boat when she got a reality check on boating safety from one of the fastest boats on the water.

“We were under the bridge when a big cigarette boat with his nose up in the air came by us,” Hunter said. “There’s no way he could have seen us.”

Tag McCord, a tool distributor who lives in Suwanee, said he has mellowed over the years when it comes to partying on the lake and now mostly uses his 21-foot boat for fishing. He has watched the lake get crowded, and these days often watches passersby with incredulity.

“You’re out there in the fog or at night and someone comes flying by at 45 miles an hour,” he said. “There’s folks out there with overloaded boats. There’s still a lot of partying.”

He said those who drift in the sun, sipping beers and dipping in the lake, often seem oblivious.

“They’re out there in the hot sun and six beers go down and they don’t feel drunk,” he said, adding that he’ll be nowhere near the lake during the upcoming holidays. “It looks like a scene from ‘Jaws’ with everyone going off in different directions. No way I’ll be there.”

Staff writer Christian Boone contributed to this article.