As crowds flock to Oklahoma lakes for the Memorial Day weekend, officials once again urge everyone to play it safe.
The busy holiday weekend comes less than two weeks after two people died in a May 14 boating accident on Grand Lake. A preliminary report shows alcohol, drugs and speed contributed to the crash.
Alcohol use was the leading factor of fatal boating accidents in Oklahoma last year, according to a federal study released this month. Operator inattention and inexperience, improper lookout, machinery failure and excessive speed round out the top five primary contributing factors in accidents, the report states.
There were 12 fatal boating accidents statewide, resulting in 15 deaths, according to the 2012 Recreational Boating Statistics. The 79-page report was released May 13 by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Coast Guard and the Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety.
Of those accidents, eight were alcohol-related, claiming the lives of three people and injuring eight, the report states.
“Most of the accidents happen on a weekend between 2 and 10 p.m., and alcohol is involved about 40 to 45 percent of those accidents,” said Trooper Mark Brown, with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Marine Enforcement Division.
Brown said in his experience, alcohol is second to human error, which plays the largest part in boating accidents.
“Human error is reckless driving, horseplay and violation of navigation rules,” he said.
“When we are around other people, we assume the others are going to be our eyes and ears for our safety,” Brown said. “We should stay vigilant at all times.”
Biggest, busiest lakes
Oklahoma Tax Commission records show there were 154,116 registered boats in the state in 2012.
Brown said most of those registered vessels are floating on the largest lakes in the state: Grand Lake, Lake Eufaula and Lake Texoma.
“They have the most accidents,” he said. “The largest lakes attract the most people ... boating, sailing, fishing and playing. Where there are a large number of people there will be accidents.”
Grand Lake in the far northeast corner of the state has 1,300 miles of shoreline and 46,500 surface acres. Lake Eufaula in east central Oklahoma has 600 miles of shoreline and 102,200 surface acres. Lake Texoma on the Texas border has 580 miles of shoreline and 93,000 surface acres.
The Oklahoma Highway Lake Patrol has 35 troopers covering Lake Eufaula, Lake Texoma and 35 other state lakes, while Grand River Dam Authority police monitor Grand Lake and Lake Hudson.
“On the larger lakes we have multiple troopers,” Brown said.
Patrol records show the highest number of drownings recorded statewide in a year, whether on the lake or in a private setting, was 55 deaths in 2011.
“We never figured that one out,” Brown said. “That was a drought year. We don't know if people were cooling off or what caused the spike.”
He said there were 30 drownings in 2010 and 21 in 2012.
Numbers for 2010 — the most recent available — show Grand Lake had two drownings and one fatal boating accident, Lake Eufaula had one drowning and two fatal boating accidents, and Lake Texoma had one drowning and no boating fatalities, according to patrol records.
What's the attraction?
Grand Lake O' the Cherokees is one of the most popular lakes in the state, said Keli Clark, Oklahoma State Parks coordinator with the state Tourism and Recreation Department.
“Both Lake Eufaula and Grand Lake have tons of homes. People like to live on the water,” Clark said.
Many are vacation homes and second homes, she said.
Both lakes feature great water sports and fishing and have small-town attractions nearby, Clark said.
“Grand lake is obviously a very popular destination all summer long,” said Justin Alberty, Grand River Dam Authority spokesman.
The largest crowds descend on Memorial Day weekend, July Fourth weekend and Labor Day weekend, he said.
Grand Lake tourism officials say on July Fourth weekend the population swells to 50,000 people.
“There are areas of the lake that are more popular with crowds at certain times of the year, but our officers are committed to patrolling all the lake to assist boaters, enforce rules and promote safe boating,” Alberty said.
Most of the lake's 12,000 boat slips are occupied, he said. Combine those numbers with the thousands of tourists from Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas that visit on a summer weekend, and that shows Grand Lake's popularity, he said.
“When you consider the sheer number of boats on Grand Lake, this lake is very safe, with the number of accidents per boat being very low,” Alberty said. “There are other popular lakes in the area, but Grand Lake is unique because of its highly developed areas and its size.”
GRDA officials want boaters to be smart, safe and sober, he said.
“Boaters need to be safe on the waters all the time, year-round,” Alberty said. “At certain times of the year and certain times of the day, boat traffic is heavier and, just like driving a car in more traffic, boaters need to keep a vigilant lookout.”