LAKE WYLIE -- Officially, Memorial Day Monday is the holiday. But for many in Lake Wylie it's the unofficial holiday -- the launch to another summer boating season -- that has calendars counting down the days.
"We stay busy," said Steve Branum, new owner of the TowBoat U.S. service on Lake Wylie, "especially Memorial Day weekend."
On Jan. 1, Branum took over the Lake Wylie business and is gearing up for his first heavy boating season here. But Branum's business is not the only change boaters can expect to find this summer.
"The main thing to stress for Lake Wylie is now all bridges on the lake are no-wake," said Charles "Bo" Ibach, former Lake Wylie Marine Commissioner and long-time safety instructor with the Charlotte Power Squadron.
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With the exception of Buster Boyd Bridge, where no-wake markers already were in place, all bridges on the lake will be marked off at 50 feet on either side for idling. The marine commission hopes to have buoys designating the areas soon.
"They're all on order," said executive director Joe Stowe. "We're going to go ahead and put them in as soon as we can."
Yet, Ibach said, boaters should not test the new rule just because there are no markers. Any area on the water within 50 feet of a bridge should be considered no-wake.
"Although these bridges are not yet marked," Ibach said, "the no-wake zone can be enforced."
Another change for Lake Wylie could come this summer, but may be finished closer to the end of boating season than the beginning. A law enforcement center at the end of Liberty Hill Road has a temporary location in place now, but work to complete the project with a boat ramp and other facilities still requires county permits, which Stowe said could take 90 days to complete.
"To our knowledge, we've done everything they've asked us to do," said Stowe of the process now several years in, which will include a boat house and office space for lake enforcement officers with York County Sheriff's Office and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "We're going to have a party when that thing opens."
A major change that may or may not arrive during boating season would impact half the lake. In North Carolina, lawmakers are working on a bill that would require mandatory boating education before operating a boat.
Mary Capps, legislative assistant to bill sponsor Rep. Michael Wray, said the bill recently passed crossover in the Senate and was referred to the House Committee on Wildlife Resources. Originally the bill stated all boaters would eventually be required to pass a course before operating a vessel, though proposed changes in the state Senate produced a document that would only apply to anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1984.
Ibach, a long-time supporter of the legislation, believes that change "waters down" a bill that could have helped Lake Wylie. South Carolina experts say a similar law in their state is not on the table, and would have a difficult time passing if it were.
"That's sad," Ibach said of the North Carolina change, "as most of the accidents occur within the age group of 25 to 50, not the kids."
What has not changed for the 2009 boating season is the one goal stated each year by lake leaders and law enforcement -- safety.
"People need to be very cautious this Memorial Day and all the days through the summer."
About TowBoat U.S.
Many people have no idea what TowBoat U.S. is until they need it, but when they do they're usually happy to find out it's there.
"It's like AAA on the water," said Steve Branum, owner of the service on Lake Wylie and Lake Norman.
Branum's service has seven captains and four boats between the two lakes, with captains on call at all times. The group partners with Lighthouse Marine Service to promote boating safety, and is housed at Pier 49 Marina on Lake Wylie.
"One thing we run into a lot is people just not being prepared," Branum said. "Life jackets are just such a key."
TowBoat responders arrive within 20 minutes anywhere on the water, but strive for 10 minutes at most. About 7,000 members in the Charlotte area receive all TowBoat services for the $53 annual cost. Yet one in every three or so calls come from non-members, Branum said.
"We help anybody," he said. "We help members and non-members."
The most common calls for service come from less experienced boaters, Branum said, and range from running down the battery with the radio to dehydration and other medical issues. Navigation also brings in some calls, with no channel markers on Lake Wylie. TowBoat also receives calls for gas, impounds and salvage.
As for staying safe in 2009, Branum suggests sticking to the basics. Let others know when and where a planned trip is, and make sure conditions are favorable for boating, he said.
"Watching the local weather is huge," Branum said. "Being out on the water in panic situations is never an ideal situation."
As with most any boating safety expert, Branum urges everyone on the water to have a personal flotation device and wear it anytime conditions become dicey. To contact TowBoat U.S. on Lake Wylie, call 704-200-1930 or use boating Channel 16.
Here are a few basic rules to know in North and South Carolina when boating:
• No person younger than age 14 may operate a personal watercraft. Ages 14 to 16 must have a boater education certificate, or be physically accompanied by an adult 18 years or older.
• Personal watercraft riders must wear personal flotation devices at all times. A safety kill switch lanyard must be attached to the operator, and personal watercraft are not allowed operation between sunset and sunrise.
• Children age 13 or younger must wear a personal flotation device at all times on the water.
• At least one properly functioning personal flotation device must be on board a vessel for each person riding.
• Operation of any vessel, or use of water skis or other towed devices, is not allowed while "under the influence of an impairing substance." A blood alcohol level of .08 or greater is not allowed.
• Watercraft entering, leaving or passing within 50 yards of a state-owned or controlled boating and fishing access area must do so at "no-wake" speed.
• Vessels should operate at "no-wake" speed when passing within 100 feet of a law enforcement vessel flashing blue lights unless the vessel is in a narrow channel, where the distance requirement is 50 feet.
• Towing is prohibited between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise, or any other time unless the vessel is equipped with a rear vision mirror, there is an observer on the vessel in addition to the operator or the person being towed wears a personal flotation device.
• Placing, throwing, depositing or discharging litter, raw sewage, bottles, cans, papers or other liquid or solid materials rendering the water "unsightly, noxious or otherwise unwholesome" and detrimental to public health or welfare results in a misdemeanor offense.
• Boating safety courses are not required, but "highly recommended" for operating vessels.
• All navigational markers and buoys should be observed. For a list of meanings, visit ncwildlife.org.
• Vessels may not be operated in excess of idle speed within 50 feet of an anchored vessel, wharf, pier, dock, or a person in the water.
• All boats must have a U.S. Coast Guard approved wearable type personal flotation device for each person on board or being towed. Each PFD must be in good condition, readily available and the proper size for the intended wearer.
• Boats 16 feet in length or longer must carry a Type IV throwable flotation device.
• Any person younger than age 12 must wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device when on board a class "A" (less than 16 feet long) boat.
• Navigation lights must be on between official sunset and sunrise.
• All boats less than 39.4 feet must carry an efficient sound producing device. Every vessel from 39.4 to 65.6 feet must carry a whistle and a bell.
• Each person on a personal watercraft must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device.
• A personal watercraft may not be operated between sunset and sunrise and must be equipped with a self-circling or lanyard-type engine cutoff switch.
• When operating a personal watercraft, one may not operate in a manner so as to leave the water completely while crossing (jumping) the wake of another vessel within 200 feet of the vessel creating the wake.
• Boat operators younger than age 16 must complete a boating course approved by the SCDNR to operate a boat or personal watercraft with a 15 h.p. motor or greater, unless accompanied by an adult age eighteen years or older.
• It is illegal for any vessel to discharge in a No Discharge Zone. Lake Wylie is one of six state No Discharge Zones.
Boating safety tips
briefshead>Before you Leave
• Complete a float plan, outlining where you intend to be and at what times, and leave the plans with a responsible individual.
• Check the weather.
• Gather all lifesaving devices. Make sure they are in good serviceable condition and are the correct size for all passengers (especially children).
• Check the fuel and the battery charge.
• Make sure lights are in good working condition on the boat and trailer.
• Make sure fire extinguisher is readily accessible and in good serviceable condition.
• Put the plug in.
• Connect trailer safety chains to tow vehicle.
• Carry a cell phone if possible.
On the Water
• Know the aids to navigation and buoy system in your areas.
• Don't operate the boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
• When operating sailboats be aware of overhead power lines and wires.
• If someone falls overboard, throw something that will float.
• Remember all boats approaching from the right have the right of way.
• Always anchor from the bow of the boat and pull the anchor before leaving.
• If boat capsizes, stay with the boat.
• If caught in a storm, head into the wind, put on personal flotation devices and keep passengers low in the boat.