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Pontoon boat safety concerns DNR (07/28/2004)
Boating safety officials are seeing more accidents and safety violations involving pontoon boats this summer. Two people have died in accidents on pontoons so far this season and there have been several other mishaps involving unsafe or unlawful activities on the popular watercraft, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

"Being on board a pontoon boat gives many folks a false sense of security," said DNR Conservation Officer Lee Alderson, who is based in Cloquet. "Some feel that pontoon boats are unsinkable and have the mistaken belief that they don't get involved in boating accidents."

There are currently about 62,000 pontoon boats registered in Minnesota. Pontoons have long been considered the boat of choice for grandma and grandpa to take the grandkids out fishing for sunnies. Today, some pontoons are nearly 30 feet long and equipped with motors over 250 horsepower.

"Most of the time the accidents have nothing to do with the size of the motor or the watercraft itself," said Tim Smalley, DNR boating safety specialist. "Instead, pontoon problems tend to arise from the passengers' activities and the way the craft is being operated. We're seeing alcohol and unsafe behavior by the passengers. It's a social situation where people want to see and be seen by other boaters and people on the shore. Because of this, they may do dangerous things in the pursuit of fun."

DNR officers and water patrol deputies, in busy weekend lake areas, have warned people dozens of times to get back behind the pontoon guard railings. Also, people are jump off moving pontoons to go swimming. "You don't need a Ph.D. to see the danger in that," Smalley said.

Minnesota law requires that everyone stay behind the railing while a pontoon is underway.

"There's a good reason behind that law," Smalley said. "If a person is outside the guard rail and the craft hits a wave or another boat's wake, or the operator turns the motor quickly, that person can be thrown overboard and drown. If they fall between the pontoons while the boat is moving forward, there's almost no way the operator can turn the motor off in time to avoid hitting the victim with the spinning propeller."

Many pontoons can easily carry 12 or 15 people. With a group that size, the operator may not realize that someone has stepped out onto the decking in front of the railings. Boat operators are responsible for the actions and safety of all their passengers.

Another pontoon problem has cropped up this summer. Many new pontoon boats are equipped with so-called "docking lights" meant to be used when approaching a dock. However, some boaters are using them as headlights while out on the water.

The DNR says docking lights blind other boaters, overpowering the pontoon's red, green and white navigation lights that help other boaters to determine the pontoon's position, speed and direction of travel.

"I hate when that happens; it's like a car coming straight at you," said Nikki Shoutz, DNR conservation officer at Pine River. "We really recommend against running with your docking lights on."

Pontoon owners need to install equipment correctly. Brainerd area DNR Conservation Officer Greg Verkuilen spotted a pontoon whose red and green navigation lights had been mounted so they pointed straight up at the sky instead of port and starboard.

Officers have also noted another violation where pontoon white stern lights are blocked or obscured by a canopy top that comes with many boats.

Pontoon operators also need to be sure they have enough life jackets on board. The law says they have to be readily accessible, not zipped into storage containers or still in their plastic wrappers from the store.

"Readily accessible means the vests have to be ready to put on at a moment's notice," Smalley said, "but we would rather folks actually have them on. Trying to put on a life jacket before a boat accident would be like trying to buckle your seatbelt just before a car crash."

Officers often report seeing overloaded pontoon boats. Metro area DNR Conservation Officer Jason Jensen reported seeing one pontoon boat that "was so overloaded that only the decking was above the waterline. Pontoons can and do porpoise and sink."

Perham area Conservation Officer Norm Floden observed a pontoon where so many passengers were crowded towards the bow, the boat was dangerously close to diving like a submarine when the operator accelerated.

"Don't get me wrong," Smalley said. "Pontoons are great and a lot of fun when operated properly, but when careless or clueless captains take over, that's when the problems begin. Pontoon boats are just like any other watercraft and need to be operated with care by a knowledgeable and sober skipper."

The DNR offers these tips to have a safe outing on your pontoon boat:

∑ Make sure passengers stay behind the guard rails while the boat is in operation and don't break the law by loading boat beyond its rated capacity.

∑ Don't drink beer or other alcoholic beverages while operating and don't allow passengers to become intoxicated either. Operators are responsible for their actions and those of their passengers from the time they leave the dock until they return.

∑ Do not use docking lights as headlights which may blind other boaters.

∑ Make sure red, green and white navigation lights are not blocked or incorrectly installed and are switched on after sunset.

∑ Have enough life jackets for everyone on board and ensure that they are worn or at least easy to reach in an emergency.

For information on boat and water safety, call the DNR at (651) 296-6157, toll free at

1-888-646-6367, or e-mail info@dnr.state.mn.us and ask for the "Minnesota Boating Guide." 


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