“The lights on your boat at night are not there to help you see; they are there to keep you safe,” Major League Fishing Bass Pro Greg Vinson said after a double incident involving three separate boats took the life of an Auburn man earlier this summer. “Running lights at the proper heights and locations and in the right colors are a huge deal at night.”
Auburn’s David George Goodling, 56, was killed when his boat was struck near the Bridge to Nowhere south of The Ridge Marina. His boat was left to drift until an hour later when another vessel struck Goodling’s boat again, and the driver of that third vessel towed Goodling’s boat to the marina. That crash was only one of three fatal boating accidents that have occurred on East Central Alabama waterways since May.
Along with Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Capt. Gary Buchanan, Vinson lent his voice to night boating safety to encourage boaters – drivers and passengers – to have fun but use caution on Lake Martin after dark.
“People often assume that they are not going to get hit – it’s a big lake, and it’s not as crowded at night as it is during the day. They think it’s not a big deal if they have a light that’s not working, or they think it’s too much trouble to replace it or fix it, but those lights in those positions and at those heights tell other boaters information that they need to avoid hitting you,” Vinson explained.
A green light on the starboard side and a red light on the port side of the boat, along with a white light at the stern, communicates to other boaters how big your boat is and in what direction it is travelling, Buchanan said.
“Those lights indicate who has the right of way. If you don’t have the proper navigation lights, it becomes confusing to other boaters what they need to do to avoid you,” he said.
Another source of confusion on the water, Buchanan added, is additional lighting in navigational colors but displayed contrary to required navigational light placement.
“If you want to put additional lighting – like the popular LED lights – on your boat, that’s fine, make yourself visible, but put the correct color on the correct side of the boat. Don’t put extra green lighting on the port side of the boat. Other boaters who see that will see the green lighting and think you are travelling in the opposite direction,” he explained.
In that case, your lights could lead an oncoming boat to turn directly into your path instead of away from you.
“It’s not very sexy, but the best thing to do if you’re putting extra lighting on your boat is to put green lights on the green side and red lights on the red side,” Buchanan advised.
Vinson suggested that a boater could flash his lights off and on several times very quickly if an approaching vessel did not seem to notice his boat in its path.
“Make sure you get them back on, of course, but you might catch someone’s attention if you flash your lights. Boat lights sometimes can get lost among the lights of houses and businesses on the shore, and an oncoming boat might be able to make you out if he’s approaching but can’t tell the difference between you and distant onshore lights,” Vinson said.
“And you need to have your head on a swivel. When you’re driving a car, there are lines on the road and signs that tell you who has the right of way. The lake is not like that. Traffic can come from any direction, and you have to be watching in all directions, all the time, because it can happen in a split second.
“I’ve had some close calls over the years in boating, and it can happen even if you are paying attention.”
“Out on the water, most people drive in straight lines, from where they are to where they want to go,” Buchanan said. “That means they cut across points, which puts them coming head-on into traffic, and if they’re driving fast, they lose reaction time and control. Slowing down would be a big help.”
“I don’t know how to be any more clear or blunt than ‘just slow down.’ Nighttime boating is not a fast boat affair.”
“Whatever speed you drive during the day, cut it in half or less at night,” Vinson agreed.
Buchanan said alcohol played a role in each of the three fatalities the area has experienced this summer, and he again urged boaters to refrain from drinking on the water.
“First, I can’t stress enough that there needs to be a designated boat driver, but just because passengers can legally drink on the boat doesn’t mean it’s smart to do it,” Buchanan said. “Think about some of these incidents where boat passengers have ended up in the water. If you are a passenger on a boat and end up in the water in an accident situation, being intoxicated is not going to help you or anybody else.”
The blood alcohol content legal limit for lake driving is the same as on the road: .08 percent. A BUI conviction could result in loss of license, jail time and a great deal of expense, and most BUI arrests occur after 4 p.m., Buchanan said.
“It’s fun to be on the lake at night,” said Vinson. “The temperatures are cooler. It’s just great to be out there in the summer after dark, but it’s more risky. Everyone out there needs to be more aware and use common sense. If everyone would do that, we’d hear about a lot fewer of these fatal incidents.”