LAKE LANIER — It’s a Sunday afternoon.
Forsyth County Sheriff’ Sgt. Josh Watson and Deputy Alan Seabolt are out patrolling the uncommonly quite waters of Lake Lanier.
For lack of a better cliché, it’s the calm before the storm.
In just one short week, the nation would be celebrating its independence, and that celebration brings visitors — lots of them — to Georgia’s largest lake.
“The main channel can seem like a busy highway,” Seabolt said. “Small bass boats crossing the wake of large boats pulling tubers and wave runners shooting across the area the tubes just left. It’s pretty crazy.”
Not to mention dangerous.
For those new to water traffic — and even seasoned vets — it can be a daunting task to cross from one area of the 38,000-acre lake to another when there are as many boats on the water as there will be July Fourth weekend.
On June 22, the sergeant and deputy are the lone sheriff’s representatives on the lake, but this weekend three boats and six deputies will be patrolling the water and parts of the nearly 700 miles of shoreline that fall in Forsyth.
In addition to the sheriff’s office, rangers with the state Department of Natural Resources will be out in force on Lanier over the long holiday weekend.
According to the DNR, there have been 40 boating incidents resulting in 28 injuries and three deaths on state waterways so far this year. In addition, 22 people have drowned and another 87 have been cited for boating under the influence.
“In theory, even when we are out here by ourselves, we can get anywhere in the county in about 25 minutes,” Watson said. “But with three boats in the water, our response time should be a lot quicker.”
That’s a good thing, too, because with more people so often comes more alcohol. Especially on such a big holiday weekend like the Fourth.
“Sometimes people come out here and just think since they aren’t technically driving a car, they can get away with operating a boat while they’re drinking,” Watson said. “That’s just not the case. It’s the same thing, a designated driver is just the same on the water as it is for vehicles on the road.”
“That’s probably the second biggest rule.”
What’s No. 1?
“Wear your life jacket,” he said. “That’s always first and foremost. So many accidents can be made worse without one.”
Technically, Georgia law does not require anyone older than 13 to wear a life jacket on a vessel, unless it is a personal water craft, like a wave runner, but it’s just a solid precaution.
If the boat is in motion and someone on the vessel is younger than 13, they are required by law to wear a life jacket. Seabolt said this rule is taken seriously.
“I’m definitely going to come pay you a visit if I see that a young kid on your boat isn’t wearing a life jacket,” he said. “That’s just something we aren’t going to turn our heads to.”
Watson said the thing he thinks falls third on the list is being familiar with the operation of your boat.
“If you’re a first-time boater,” he said, “spend some time getting to know how the boat operates before getting out on the water and running at full throttle. That can get you in trouble quick.”
Even on the recent quiet Sunday, the deputies encountered some boaters who needed to be informed of some minor infractions: operating a vessel within 100 feet of any other object (that goes for major vessel and personal water craft); and running a boat faster than idle speed in a no wake zone. Those are also the most common violations deputies make stops for.
It’s also a good idea to know the lake and your surroundings, Watson said. It’s always easy to get turned around on a lake the size of Lanier. And on a big weekend like the Fourth, with so many extracurricular activities, getting distracted can happen even more quickly.
“The biggest thing is, just make good decisions,” Watson said. “If you think it may potentially be illegal or unsafe, the best practice is not to do it.”