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Aware of recent tragedies, revelers cautiously celebrate holiday

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Hundreds of boaters celebrate the Fourth of July by floating the waters of Lake Lanier on the Beachview Pavilion and Sunset Cove at Lake Lanier Island Resort on Wednesday.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Hundreds of boaters celebrate the Fourth of July by floating the waters of Lake Lanier on the Beachview Pavilion and Sunset Cove at Lake Lanier Island Resort on Wednesday.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Lake Lanier was crowded with hundreds of boaters during the Fourth of July holiday on Wednesday.

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File Photo -- People wait for the arrival of their friends and family by boats at the east bank boat ramp at Lake Lanier.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Hundreds of boaters celebrate the Fourth of July by floating the waters of Lake Lanier on the Beachview Pavilion and Sunset Cove at Lake Lanier Island Resort on Wednesday.

BUFORD -- If boaters wanted to ramp on to the lake via Lake Lanier Park on Wednesday, they had to be there before 11 a.m.

That's when parking lot capacity reached 63 boats, and park officials began to motion motorists towing boats to turn around and look for another place to launch.

"That's the kind of morning it's been," said Jerry Fink, a park attendant contractor, who still turned away boaters into the early afternoon.

The Fourth of July was by far the busiest day this year for water traffic, Fink said, and Father's Day was a distant second, while Memorial Day was almost slow by comparison. It was a sharp uptick in traffic from earlier in the week, when Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Melissa Cummings said activity levels were normal. She said the recent heat wave may be one reason lake traffic had not yet accelerated.

As revelers took to the water and the beach area at Lake Lanier Park, they brought with them a host of holiday snacks and drinks to enjoy the patriotic celebration. But several were mindful of recent tragedies on the lake, and said they would display extra caution in and around the water.

That attitude is in light of two Buford brothers dying last month, following an after-dark collision of two boats on Lake Lanier. There was another boat collision that killed a Duluth man in April.

Charges of boating under the influence followed both incidents.

In light of the tragedy last month, Gov. Nathan Deal last week said the blood alcohol limit of .10 for boating and hunting is "far too high."

Deal said the state needs to have one level across the board, and when the General Assembly convenes in January, he would push for the same .08 limit that's in place for driving a vehicle.

Deal also applauded the recent cooperation agreement between Gwinnett County and the DNR.

"As governor it is my priority to protect Georgians to the best of my ability and enforce the law," Deal said. "Far too many tragedies have occurred as a result of boating under the influence, and we must take the necessary steps to keep people safe."

Last month's tragedy brought a lot of questions and comments from boaters, Fink said, but he wasn't optimistic that it would cause wholesale changes in attitude.

"I wish I could tell you, yes," Fink said, when asked if he noticed boaters being more aware to take safety precautions. "Unfortunately, things like that wear off quickly."

But as each boater checks in at the entrance, Fink passes out a fluorescent card that lists safety precautions.

At the Lanier beach, Sandy Springs resident Kelvin Watkins lounged on a beach towel under a tent as his family played in the water. He said the holiday is meant for families to be together and take it easy. The recent tragedies on the water wouldn't deter his family, he said, but the adults would, "watch the kids a little closer, with boats coming in."

A few steps away from Watkins, John and Adrienne Gaug of Covington sat in lounge chairs.

The Gaugs are both recent retirees from the Army, and John said he appreciates what the Fourth represents.

"I don't have to ask anybody to do this," he said, and motioned to an area that had blankets, drinks and a watermelon.

Amanda Soesbe of Loganville, who sat in the group with the Gaugs, said the recent tragedies have changed how she views holiday get-togethers.

"It makes you more mindful of watching the kids in the water," she said.

On patrol around Lake Lanier Park and East Bank park was U.S. Corps of Engineers Park Ranger Jack Taylor, who echoed Fink's words about how busy the parks and lakes are on the Fourth.

Taylor said he looks to keep alcohol use down, and watches for children floating on styrofoam in the water.

Taylor said revelers have "gotten more sense about them" in recent years, and tragedies on the water typically reduce incidents in the weeks that follow.

"It's controlled chaos," he said. "We're more understanding of folks today, but still we enforce the rules."