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Local divers offer tips to stay safe on Lake Lanier this summer
boating safety
Hazard, 'no wake' and 'keep out' signs are common on Lake Lanier, and boaters should know what they mean.

It is no secret that Lake Lanier has seen its fair share of boating accidents, drownings and injuries. But can people really chalk it up to the rumored spirits floating beneath the waves, or is there something else boaters and swimmers are missing?

According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, in 2021, Lake Lanier saw four drownings, 24 boating accidents, 74 BUIs and five fatalities.

As boating season begins this summer, Forsyth County News interviewed officials that know Lake Lanier’s dangers and have the best tips to keep you informed this year. After all, a knowledgeable boater is a safe boater.

 

Tan lines to be proud of

Sgt. Chris Tempel, dive team commander for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, has been diving on Lake Lanier since 2000, responding to boating accidents and drownings.

After 22 years in the business, he said the No. 1 rule that’s broken is people not wearing a life jacket or other personal floatation device.

Tempel said that people need to be wearing a life jacket while a boat is moving. If a boat has stopped, he said life jackets aren’t required but are still recommended for children, people with medical conditions and poor swimmers.

“I know they might give you funny tan lines, but it’s always better to be around to laugh about them than [not],” Tempel said.

According to the Georgia DNR, each person riding on a personal watercraft, like a Jet Ski or Sea-Doo, must always wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device.

While not always the most stylish, he said life jackets and other personal floatation devices can literally save lives, and he encourages people to use personal flotation devices.

Who has the right-of-way?

Lake Lanier doesn’t have lanes or yellow lines to help navigate the channels, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ‘rules of the road.’

Richard Pickering has been “safely boating” for more than 40 years, driving everything from Jet Skis to 120-foot houseboats and hasn’t had one accident. He also oversees the safety briefings for the Poker Run each year, an annual boating event on Lake Lanier.

“Boating on Lake Lanier can be quite treacherous when people don’t know the rules of the road,” Pickering said.

Like a highway, he said boaters want to stay “generally on the right” as they’re crossing the lake.

If you’re looking to pass another boat or vessel in front of you, stay to the left and keep a distance of at least 100 feet, as is law.

If a boat or vessel is crossing in front of you, Pickering said the vessel to the right always has the right-of-way.

“It’s your responsibility to slow down and allow them to pass in front of you while still maintaining a safe distance of 100 feet or more,” Pickering said.

He said this rule is often overlooked by novice boaters and those on Jet Skis and can land people in serious trouble with the maritime law. His suggestion is to take a free boater safety class online, which are provided by the U.S. Coast Guard and DNR.

Another rule to remember is that sailboats under sail always have the right-of-way, as they are at the mercy of the wind and waves. If a sailboat is under power, they must adhere to the same rules as boaters and those operating personal watercraft.

boat safety
Boats under power are always expected to yield to the right. The boat pictured above is breaking the right-of-way rule as well as the rule to stay 100 feet away from another boat.

Pay attention and understand the markers

Lake Lanier is riddled with poles, buoys and flags, but not because it looks cool. The markers are there to keep people on the lake safe, and it’s important to know what they mean.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, underwater hazards are typically marked with a diamond symbol, like submerged boulders, trees and sandbars.

Pickering said it’s important to avoid driving a boat between a marker and the shoreline, as the markers typically indicate shallow water; always navigate around the marker on the side furthest from the shore.

“Always give the marker good distance, too,” Pickering said.

Hazard, ‘no wake’ and ‘keep out’ signs are typically white, with navigation markers on the lake in green. More information about the specific meanings of signs can be found on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ website at www.usace.army.mil.

Pickering also encouraged boaters to “get off the lake” by sundown, as many markers are not lit and can present more dangers in the dark with people running into them and the obstructions underneath.

boat safety
There are three hazard markers in this photo, indicating shallow water around an island in the middle of Lake Lanier. Can you spot them all?

Understand the topography

While Pickering encourages all boaters and those on Jet Skis to drive vessels with their heads “on a swivel” to look out for markings, he said not all hazards have been marked on Lake Lanier.

Studying topography and looking at the shoreline can help boaters gauge how deep the water is, according to Pickering.

“One of the biggest challengers for boaters on Lake Lanier is not knowing what’s underneath the water,” Pickering said. “If you look at the topography of the land and study it, you’ll begin to see a pattern emerge.”

Pickering explained that if you see a string of islands in the lake close together, there’s a “very good chance” that the islands are connected under the waves by low-lying areas, boulders or other obstacles “sticking up and could cause an accident with your boat.”

He said typically, if the shoreline is steep, “then chances are very good that the steep slope will continue down underneath the water and provide you with safe passage through deep water.”

If a shoreline’s slope is gentle, has a beach or you see “brown in the area,” you should give the shoreline a wide berth as that can be indicative of sandbars and “very shallow waters.”

boat safety
Lake Lanier has shallow points close to islands, so it is important to watch for beaches and sandbars under the waves.

Stay sober and alert

Through Tempel’s 22 years of experience on the lake, he hasn’t seen the ‘Lady of the Lake,’ an apparition some say they have seen, or any other spirits that are rumored to suck people under the water.

“I’m still diving, aren’t I?” Tempel said. “The first time I meet the ‘Lady of the Lake,’ I believe I’ll be ending my diving career.”

He said another large factor on the lake is a different kind of spirit: Alcohol.

According to the Georgia DNR, Lake Lanier has seen at least 30 BUIs a year in the last five years, with 84 in 2020 and 74 in 2021.

“People come to the lake for recreation and unfortunately, [alcohol and drugs] don’t mix with water,” Tempel said.

He said driving a boat or Jet Ski while under the influence is the same as driving a car and it’s imperative to drink responsibly.

“The best way to stay safe on [Lake Lanier] is to really exercise good common sense and judgement and stay sober.”

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, a “boat operator is likely to become impaired more quickly than a driver, drink for drink” due to the engine vibration, lake motion and sun.

Tips for avoiding a BUI this summer include bringing plenty of snacks and food on a day out, drinking a lot of water, wearing clothes that will keep you cool and considering hosting larger parties onshore instead of on a boat.

 

Other resources 

Whatever your style of enjoying the lake, it is important that you keep your boat and others’ afloat this summer so that you can make return trips to see all that Lake Lanier offers. And show off those odd tan lines.

To find out more about other life-saving tips, visit the website for the U.S. Coast Guard at www.uscg.mil, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at www.usace.army.mil or Georgia DNR at gadnr.org.