Visit any lake during this time of year and you are bound to see vessels of all kinds sharing the water. If you plan to be in or on the water for any reason, safety officials urge you to be prepared in case of an emergency.

"The number one thing that we can drive home is to wear a personal flotation device (PFD)," said Col. Thomas Barnard, Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The Georgia DNR works state waterways -- including lakes, rivers and streams -- along with farm ponds and private properties. Of those waterways, Ten boat fatalities and 57 drownings occurred on those waterways in 2018. This year, the state is already up to 10 boat fatalities (the same as last year's total) and 12 drownings.

Barnard said he believes the drownings would have been prevented if the victims had been wearing lifejackets.

"Lifejackets are probably the most important thing we can stress with people who are on the water," he said. "While state law only requires those that are under the age of 13 to be wearing a lifejacket while the boat is in motion, we encourage everyone to have on a PFD while they're onboard because when accidents occur, they occur very quickly, and you don't have time to put on that lifejacket once you enter the water."

Such appeared to be the case with a recent incident at Clarks Hill Lake. Although the incident is still under investigation, initial reports indicate that a canoe on the lake tipped over due to the wake of another boat. One victim survived after two local Soldiers came to his rescue. The other victim disappeared before help arrived. Neither were wearing a PFD. It is a scenario that Danny Kuhlmann, Columbia County Fire Rescue operations chief, sees occur too often and that further underscores the importance of wearing a PFD.

"If you get hit or you fall out [of a watercraft] and you hit something -- the side of the boat, the motor, or a rock underneath the water -- you need to have one that will keep you up," Kuhlmann said.

PFDs come in many styles and vary in size. It is important to get one that is properly sized and U.S. Coast Guard approved. Every watercraft needs to have a PFD for each person onboard and at least one throwable flotation device.

When an incident occurs

If you encounter an accident or spot someone in distress while in the water, immediately dial 911 then drop a pin off your cell phone. A dropped pin helps authorities to determine a starting point in search and rescue efforts. Toss a throwable flotation device to the victim(s) if you can. Do not attempt to assist further unless you are wearing a PFD and are capable.

"Your safety is top priority, and they may end up pulling you in the water because they're in a panic state, so we can't stress that enough -- PFD wear -- especially if you're going to rescue someone like that," Barnard said.

If you find yourself in an overturned boat or crash, the best thing to do is stay with the boat.

"Stay with that vessel as much as possible unless it sinks … because that's a visible marker for people if someone else were to call 911," Barnard said. "It really just goes back to PFD wear."
For more information about Georgia boating education and safety, swimming advisories and more, visit https://gadnr.org/.