Typically, boating accidents are rare occurrences on Chatham County’s waterways. However, since May 5, six people have died and others have been injured in boating collisions, either with other boats or fixed objects such as markers and fenders.
In reports, you’ll often find that three agencies at the local, state and federal level respond in the case of boating accidents: Chatham County Marine Patrol, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard. Here is a rundown of their roles and responsibilities, and the trends the agencies are noticing in boating incidents this year:
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Boating agency jurisdictions
Chatham Marine Patrol covers only the waterways within Chatham County. In other words, all 262 square miles of waterways within the county’s boundaries from the Savannah River on the north to St. Catherine Sound to the south.
When an emergency or other incident occurs within its jurisdiction, Chatham Marine Patrol responds, including its dive team that conducts rescues and recoveries. If the incident warrants involves property damage under $2,000, Chatham Marine Patrol will work the investigation, said CCMP Sgt. Danny Walker. If the incident warrants a state charge, Georgia DNR is called in.
“We all work together,” said Walker.
Georgia DNR’s jurisdiction, meanwhile, covers the entire state of Georgia. If it’s a boating incident accruing more than $2,000 in property damages or involves serious injuries or fatalities, Georgia DNR would be the primary agency. If the incident falls under its jurisdiction, for example, the CCMP will call DNR for assistance. CCMP, then, would create an incident report on how it assisted DNR with the initial investigation.
The U.S. Coast Guard covers the federal waterways, which are three miles off-shore and the intracoastal waterway, which runs from Boston, Massachusetts, to Brownsville, Texas. Chatham County falls within the 7th District – Southeast and has an Air Station on Lightning Road in Savannah. In addition to criminal investigations, the Coast Guard offers assistant with search and rescues operations when requested by local agencies.
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Major Boat Accidents Since 2010
May 2010: On Memorial Day weekend, Tybee Island resident Dawn Piper, 38, died after she was thrown from her family’s boat on the Back River and struck by the boat’s propeller. Her husband, Lawrence, was later indicted with two counts of homicide with vehicle.
August 2013: Shana Crozier, 25, suffered a fatal head injury while riding on the Ogeechee River in a boat piloted by Joseph Andy Webb, 33, who was later charged with homicide by vessel in the first degree and multiple other counts, including boating under the influence.
July 2014: Paul Moore, 52, of Talahi Island died after his boat capsized near Williamson Island in Wassaw Sound.
April 2021: After striking a barge, a boat capsized in the Savannah River near the Colonial Oil dock, sending a mother, father and child into the river. The father, Charles Keiffer, 42, went missing, and his body was found four days later.
August 2021: Seven people aboard a 21-foot center console boat collided with a dredging vessel in the Savannah River. All seven people fell into the water. Two of the passengers, brothers Thomas, 21, and Joseph Fox, 23, went missing. Their bodies were recovered two days later on the Jasper County side of the river.
Chatham marine patrol, Georgia DNR: Boating citations and incidents rise
Both CCMP and Georgia DNR said they have seen increased boating incidents occur this year.
CCMP’s Walker said that in his 10 years of being with the CCMPS, 2022 already has been “a little more busy than in prior years.”
In 2021, CCMP issued 547 citations, ranging from speeding through low-wake zones to boating under the influence, increased from 2020’s total of 333 citations.
Walker said that with COVID-19 isolation and shutdowns, more people purchased boats, putting more people on the water.
Georgia DNR’s Cpt. Chris Hodge agreed, adding that Memorial Day Weekend was especially busy. It’s what the GA DNR refers to as the unofficial opening day of boating season.
“It’s kind of the time of year you see the huge increase of traffic on the rivers,” said Hodge. “And you’ll see the number of water fatalities and drownings increase. You’ll see the number of boating accidents increase. You’ll see the number of people arrested for [being] under the influence increase, because there’s more boats on the water now at this time of year.”
In the last two years, the number of boating citations/warnings DNR issues increased by nearly 13%, from 6,910 to 7,790.
Hodge said the increase is largely due to “operator inattention with the type of equipment we have or that is available these days.”
Added Hodge, “The risk of an accident obviously increases tremendously, but operator inattention has caused a lot of accidents. I don’t want to quote a percentage nor a number, because I don’t know what the number percentage is. But operator intention is a huge, huge contributing factor.”
CCMP’s Walker recommends more people “go out and educate themselves before going out on the water,” especially those using boat rental services. He said CCMP offers a free boating safety class on the third Saturday of every month, which is limited to 30 people per class.
“They shouldn’t rely on just themselves,” said Walker. “Anybody that could go out and educate themselves and learn how to operate a boat or know what the rules of the waterways are, would benefit the person greatly.”
Drew Favakeh is the public safety reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at [email protected]