ERIE, Pa. — Dan Heitzer figured his first weekend as chief of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Erie would be a busy one, given that he assumed command in late May at the start of the Memorial Day weekend.
But a rainy holiday weekend put a damper on a lot of activity on Lake Erie, he said.
Business picked up in a big way after that, starting with a massive lake search on June 11 and June 12 for a woman who reportedly fell off a boat a few miles north of Presque Isle State Park.
Authorities would later charge that the woman, 51-year-old Elk Creek Township resident Karen Leclair, did not fall off the boat on June 11 but was killed by her husband, 48-year-old Christopher Leclair, and thrown into the lake on June 10. The Pennsylvania State Police charged Christopher Leclair with homicide in his wife’s death a day after the Coast Guard suspended the 30-hour lake search, which covered the equivalent of 1,400 square miles, and declared Karen Leclair deceased.
The search was one of roughly 70 search and rescue calls Station Erie worked from the start of the boating season through the end of August, said Heitzer, 33, who oversees a 21-member crew at the Presque Isle-based station. He said his station, and all of the 9th Coast Guard District, which covers the Great Lakes, has seen a rise in boating-related incidents this summer, with one more holiday weekend to go.
Local fire chiefs whose volunteer departments also respond to incidents on area waterways agree.
The Lake City Fire Company’s water rescue calls have increased “probably easily 25 to 30 percent over previous years,” Chief Thomas Hosack said.
Rick Schau, chief of the West Lake Fire Department in Millcreek Township, said his department’s calls are probably twice the number of calls the department responded to in 2016.
“What’s driving it, I don’t know,” Schau said. “We had a crummy June, and maybe there were more boaters in July and August. But our calls are way up.”
Heitzer said he believes there are a lot more boaters out on the water this summer. He also thinks that a large percentage of the rescue calls were the result of boaters not being prepared when they headed out onto the water. Many boaters travel to Lake Erie from Pittsburgh, Cleveland or other distant locations and just want to get out onto the water, and at times they might not pay attention to lake conditions or pay heed to small craft advisories that are issued, he said.
“One day there was a weather advisory and I saw Jet Skis out. There’s no way they should be out,” Heitzer said.
One particularly rough day, in terms of lake conditions and rescue calls, was June 24. The Coast Guard and assisting agencies rescued 21 people from the lake in three incidents that happened in less than seven hours, beginning with two kayakers who got swamped by waves in the Erie channel. Seven other people were rescued after a charter boat began taking on water about 3 miles offshore of the Walnut Creek Access area in Fairview Township, and a dozen other people were aided after the pontoon boat they were on capsized near Dobbins Landing in Presque Isle Bay.
The National Weather Service in Cleveland had issued a small craft advisory that afternoon, because of the threat of 3-foot to 5-foot waves.
“A lot of out-of-towners who come up here don’t understand how quickly the lake can change. That’s probably the most challenging thing,” Schau said.
The 9th Coast Guard District issued a news release Friday afternoon urging boaters across the Great Lakes to use caution over the Labor Day holiday weekend because of potentially hazardous weather conditions. Small craft advisories and beach hazards statements have been issued for Lake Erie and three other lakes for various time frames throughout the weekend, officials said in the release.
Hosack said smaller watercraft, such as kayaks, are becoming more popular as the prices have come down and there are more places to buy and rent them. But a lot of people who are buying them have no knowledge of the dangers in riding them.
“Wave conditions, the current, obstacles in the creeks can cause incidents like drownings, or they can get caught up in debris,” he said.
It’s important to not only pay attention to water conditions, but also to water temperature, Heitzer said. A lot of times boaters dress for the air temperature, and don’t pay attention to the water temperature.
“It takes the lake a little bit to warm up,” he said.
Hosack said all boaters should take the state’s boater safety course, and should learn how to be safe on the lake from other boaters, “who have a massive amount of knowledge in our area.” He said boaters should also have the necessary safety equipment, should ensure that the equipment is functioning properly, and should have an emergency marine radio.
“That’s key,” he said. “Cellphones sometimes don’t work. Sometimes they go to Canadian towers. The marine radio gets you in touch with the closest Coast Guard station.”
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com