The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary of Billings were camped out Saturday at Lake Elmo conducting safety inspections for Billings’ boaters to ensure boaters are current on safety measures before boating season starts in earnest.
Two certified vessel examiners with Flotilla 02 of Billings, Patrick Kuntz and Mark Kovacs, were doing free vessel safety checks for personal boaters. Those who pass the safety check receive a decal for their boat, and would also pass Montana and Federal inspections, Kovacs said.
Montana law doesn’t require boaters to pass an inspection, but failure to meet Montana’s recreational boater regulations per Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks may result in fines.
Penalties for violating Montana’s boating laws or regulations may be fined up to $500 and sentenced for up to six months in jail, according to MFWP.
The inspections conducted by the flotilla are for safety only, Kuntz said. Boaters are still required to go through watercraft check stations to check for invasive mussels or species through Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
Required gear and safety measures, per Montana law, include life jackets, one per passenger is required to be on board, and children under 12 have to wear them at all times. Fire extinguishers, backfire flame arresters, some type of ventilation for motorized boats with closed construction, a whistle, horns or bells, and navigational lights for boating after dark are also required.
Patrick Kuntz, the Flotilla Commander, said not wearing life jackets is the most common infraction he sees. Often boaters won’t have them, or if they do they’re stowed away making it difficult to grab one quickly. Like seatbelts it bears repeating: life jackets save lives.
According to data from the U.S. Coast Guard 76% of victims in accidents involving death drowned and 85% did not wear a life jacket.
Accidents are unexpected. For that reason just stowing a life jacket onboard is often not good enough, Kuntz said. If a boat flips, or a person falls out of the boat, digging to find stowed jackets is often too late.
Kuntz advises wearing a life jacket at all time, even on calm waters. According to Coast Guard statistics about half of recreational boating fatalities happen on calm waters.
“Like the Madison is real slow and pretty shallow, but you still have to be careful. I’ve floated on that and I’ve kept my life jacket on even though it seemed kind of silly,” Kuntz said.
Another safety issue is drinking and boating. Under Montana law a person with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 is considered under the influence and may not operate a boat or vehicle.
Alcohol was the leading known cause in fatal boating accidents in 2017, according to the Coast Guard.
“Just don’t drink and drive a boat. Get a designated driver just like anything else,” Kuntz said.
Montana has seen one fatality from a boating accident on Montana waterways in 2019, and several injuries.
Hoping to prevent further accidents, the Billings flotilla is ready to answer safety questions and boaters can request free vessel safety checks at their convenience.
The flotilla was charted in Billings in 2013, after disbanding in the 1980s. It’s part of a four-state area, District 13, which includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. The auxiliary, comprised of volunteers, helps educate about boat safety, patrol waters and may assist in search and rescue efforts in Montana's vast waterways.
They hold free safety checks and free boater safety classes throughout the year. Earning a decal for passing boat exams can help reduce insurance costs with certain providers, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Kuntz checked Kovacs' boat during a slow time on Saturday. Examiners can't check their own boat. Kovacs passed the inspection and earned a shiny, 2019 decal on his boat’s window.