“When the sun goes down, we go in.”
That’s how Hank Ramey, a Flowery Branch resident, operates his boat.
“We make it a practice to not boat at night ... it’s a safety issue,” he said. “I’m sure there are people who boat at night that disagree with that, but we’re just in the other camp.”
Maj. Stephen Adams with the Georgia Department of Resources said there is a significant amount of boating traffic after dark in the summer, but if done correctly, it can be safe.
“Boating is a safe activity,” he said. “Boating done correctly with the proper safety equipment and the proper knowledge is an enjoyably activity.”
He encourages boaters to know the lake and make sure their boats have working lights and accessible life jackets, especially at night.
“Don’t go anywhere you’re not familiar with during the day,” Adams said. “If you’re not familiar with it during the day, you’re certainty going to be confused with it at night.”
But night safety is only a part of boating on Lake Lanier, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates attracts 7.5 million visitors annually.
From January 1994 to June 16, 2012, there were 38 reported fatalities on Lake Lanier stemming from 779 boating incidents. Since 1999, there have been 73 drownings.
This year, there have been two drownings and one fatality from a boat incident, numbers the DNR keeps separately.
The numbers do not reflect Monday night’s boat crash that took the life of 9-year-old Jake Prince and left his brother, 13-year-old Griffin, missing.
But most of those incidents, Adams said, happen during the day.
“Believe it or not, most boating incidents occur on calm, sunny days during the middle of the afternoon because that’s when most of the vessel traffic is out,” he said. “However, most boating incidents that occur after dark are typically more severe and involve more injuries and more damage to the vessel.”
Monday’s crash happened about 10:30 p.m. near Buford Dam. Authorities say the driver of the fishing boat that struck the pontoon boat carrying the Prince brothers and 11 others was under the influence of alcohol.
Paul J. Bennett, 44, was charged with boating under the influence and is free on bond. Georgia law prohibits people with a blood alcohol level of 0.10 from operating a boat or personal watercraft.
“Just the effects of being out on the lake all day, the vibrations of the boat, the wave actions, the sun, it will impair you,” Adams said. “You throw alcohol on top of that and it can really impair somebody.”
From the start of this year to June 16, 19 boaters were charged with BUIs. There were 32 BUIs last year on Lake Lanier and 30 in 2010.
Those arrested for BUI are charged with a misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $1,000 and/or prison time up to one year.
Those laws, some boaters say, are fine, yet they wish more boaters would exercise caution.
“I don’t think any laws should be changed, but people just need to be responsible,” said Victor Miller. “If you’re going to be drinking, you should have someone to drive the boat or car or whatever you’re doing.”
And laws, just like those combating drinking and driving a car, may not be the solution. It’s the operators, other boaters say, that need improvement.
“You got good boaters just like you have good drivers and you have bad boaters just like you have bad drivers,” said J.D. Goff. “If you’re going to drink, you’re at your dock. You’re through for the day and you’re going to relax. It’s the same situation as drinking and driving, and you don’t do that.”
The DNR monitors the lake for drunken and unsafe boaters, but the some 690 miles of Lake Lanier shoreline can present a challenge for the 11 rangers charged with patrolling the waters.
“We’re going to focus our efforts in (areas of high traffic and complaints),” Adams said. “If there’s nothing going on and there are no complaints, you may not see us because we don’t have enough people to have a presence so every time you turn around you see a ranger. And I don’t think the boating public wants that.”
Goff knows the challenges of the DNR, but said drinking on the lake is very common.
“The rangers are just strung out so far and wide and there’s just so few of them you can’t really monitor it all,” Goff said. “But I see drinking and boating as a problem.”
Some seasoned boaters say they know drinking happens on the lake, but they’ve never really had an issue.
“I haven’t met a person out here that I would call rude or obnoxious,” Ramey said. “I’m sure there are exceptions and we may just be blessed to only encounter great people.
“It’s like anything. If you want to go boating and look for problems, you can find them. If you want to go out in town somewhere and find a problem, you can certainly find it. It’s just like anything; you need to exercise common sense.”
And a part of that common sense, Adams said, is just knowing the “rules of the road,” both day and night.
“Know what you’re doing before you get out on the water,” he said.