SMITH LAKE, Ala. – The Fourth of July is a busy time on and around Smith Lake, which has already seen its share of tragedies this year including two fatalities just since late May. The Tribune talked to Captain Matt Brooks, Northern District Marine Patrol Chief for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), which has jurisdiction over Alabama’s waterways, about the status of Smith Lake and the upcoming holiday.
During fiscal year 2019, since last October, there have been three reported boating accidents on Smith Lake, two of which resulted in fatalities; and two drownings, for a total of four deaths on the lake.
Marine Patrol troopers have issued approximately 200 citations so far:
• Two for boating while intoxicated
• Six for illegal possession of alcohol (Most of Smith Lake is dry.)
• Nine for careless operation of a vessel
• One for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia
• The remainder are for equipment, registration, and licensing violations
According to Brooks, the overall numbers for Smith Lake are within the normal range for the area, though the state has seen an upsurge in waterway incidents.
Said Brooks, “Statewide, we’ve had a dramatic increase. We are up from 26 total boating accidents to 60 (within comparable time periods from 2018 to 2019) now, from 26 to 60. We have increased our fatalities during the same time period from 8 to 16, and our injuries have been increased from 14 to 19.”
The biggest issues for marine troopers come from ski boats and similar vessels. Brooks told us, “Probably the number one complaint that we receive on Smith Lake, as well as statewide, are wake issues, specifically complaints on wakeboard boats being operated carelessly.”
Brooks said specifically of Smith Lake, “Boats are jammed in. It’s kind of a narrow lake in a lot of places, you know, a lot of narrow areas of the lake, I guess you can say; and boat wake tends to be a big issue.”
Brooks told us, “We have two fireworks shows coming up next week. Our troopers will be out in full force during the week, through the holiday and the weekend after.”
ALEA, which historically has had only one trooper on the lake, now has two full-time troopers patrolling the waterway, and a third slated to be on the water by the end of 2019. For the holiday, they will be joined by marine patrols from the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office and game wardens from the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Brooks said, “Things that we’re going to be looking for over the holiday week are persons operating recklessly and carelessly–a lot of times, courtesy goes a long way, as well. Being a courteous boater can alleviate a lot of problems. Smith Lake is mostly dry. There are some portions of it that people are allowed to consume alcohol, but it’s mostly dry; so if they’re in an area where alcohol is prohibited, we’ll be looking for that.
“We want to make sure that boaters that go out to the fireworks show at night have their correct navigational lights, and have them displayed like they’re supposed to. That’s one right there that, you know, this time of year, we don’t issue warnings for that. If the navigation lights are not correct, they’re most likely going to receive a citation for that.
“We’re looking for equipment violations. We want to make sure that life jackets are in the vessels and are worn accordingly, when they’re supposed to. Children under eight are required to have them on at all times.
“We also want to emphasize the ‘rules of the road,’ where the boat operators know what to do when they’re encountering other traffic. Specifically on that one, I would say staying to the right in a head-on meeting, making sure that they keep a proper lookout.
“We also want to make sure that they don’t overload their vessels. Holidays are really bad for that, when people will go out and put way too many people in a boat. They should pay very careful attention to their capacity plate.
“And then, we also want to remind all boaters to keep a safe distance from piers, shoreline, people in the water. We’ll specifically be on the lookout for that this week, as well.”
Brooks noted that a single Marine Patrol citation and related court fees typically costs the violator over $300.
The Captain also cautioned that the Smith Lake Park fireworks show is an event that draws special attention from law enforcement. The show draws several thousand boats into a very tight cluster around the park, requiring tremendous amounts of safe driving, correct and functional navigational lighting, and patience and understanding from boaters.
To contact the Marine Patrol Division of ALEA, or for more information on safe boating and boating laws, visit https://www.alea.gov/dps/marine-patrol, or call 334-517-2950.