A Maine Game Warden launches his boat into the Penobscot River in 2019. Credit: BDN file photo

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Thinking of hitting the water soon? Boating, canoeing and kayaking are great ways to have fun while practicing social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it’s important to take necessary precautions — ones you may not have before — while enjoying these activities to prevent unintentionally spreading the disease.

To help people explore Maine’s waterways safely this season, the Maine Warden Service recently released special safety guidelines for boaters, which are applicable to most water sports.

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“We certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from enjoying boating on the water, but we ask they adhere to CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service said. “We’ll be reminding people if they’re in violation.”

At the start of every boating season, the warden service urges all boaters to wear life jackets and follow general boating rules and safety measures. In addition this year, the service asks the following:

— People stay at least 6 feet away from others on the water, on the boat and on land.

— No recreational boat should have a group of more than 10 people on board.

— Don’t share equipment.

— Avoid using boat ramps and docks while other people are on them.

— When launching and loading your boat, give people ahead of you plenty of time and space to finish launching or loading before you approach.

— After fueling, wash your hands with soap and water or, if soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

— Do not touch your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

— Sanitize equipment with EPA-registered products after each trip, paying particular attention to high-touch surfaces such as handholds and grab bars, rails, hatch latches and lids and coolers.

“Launching and loading boats is probably going to take a little more time,” MacDonald said. “Go a little earlier to the launch and expect to stay a little later.”

Also, before heading out on the water this year, make sure that you refresh your memory on boating regulations and safety guidelines that are always in place, such as:

— Have the proper safety equipment, including personal floatation devices (life jackets) for everyone on board.

— Have registered your motorized boat and it displays a lake and river protection sticker.

— Be familiar with the proper operation of the boat.

— Check the weather forecast and prepare accordingly.

— Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.

— Do not drink and drive.

“There’s still some feeling based on boating culture that it’s somewhat acceptable to have a few drinks when you’re floating around in a boat,” MacDonald said. “We’re trying to shift the culture, for people to realize this isn’t acceptable. ”

Anyone operating or attempting to operate a watercraft in Maine while intoxicated is guilty of a criminal violation. Penalties include a fine, imprisonment or both.

Life jackets also play an important role in accidents on the water. Each year, approximately half of Maine’s boating deaths involve nonmotorized watercraft such as canoes and kayaks with the paddler not wearing a life jacket.

Even the strongest swimmers lose the ability to stay afloat when immersed in cold water for a period of time, and early in the season, the water can be especially cold.

“From a game warden’s perspective, it’s the water temperatures that are very dangerous this time of year,” MacDonald said. “My truck says it’s 78 degrees outside, but the water — depending on where you are — could be in the 40s.”

Maine law requires that all watercraft, including canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, have at least one U.S. Coast Guard-approved wearable PFD for each person on board, according to “The Boater’s Guide to Boating Laws and Responsibility” published by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine Department of Marine Resources.

In addition, children 10 years of age or younger must wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD at all times while on board a watercraft unless the watercraft is docked, anchored or moored. And there are certain circumstances in which people of all ages are required by law to wear a life jacket, such as when riding a jet-ski.

Regardless of the situation, the warden service recommends people always wear life jackets when on the water — not just have them in the boat for emergencies. This is because emergencies are almost always unexpected, and by the time you’re in the water, you may not be able to retrieve and put on a life jacket.

“It’s difficult if not impossible to get to your life jacket if it’s blowing in the wind down a lake or somehow trapped in a boat that’s overturned,” MacDonald pointed out.

When enforcing laws in the woods and on the water, Maine game wardens, like many other professionals throughout the state, have made major changes in how they operate due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. They practice social distancing whenever possible and carry personal protective equipment such as face coverings. They’re also using plenty of sanitizer to keep their hands and frequently touched surfaces clean, MacDonald said.

“Now we might take someone’s information, push away from their boat, do our thing and reconnect — almost doing enforcement at a distance,” MacDonald said. “But then there are those times we have to make arrests. Those are the times we have to wear masks and take precautions, for our safety but also for the safety of the person we’re arresting.”

Abiding by the law and following the recommended safety guidelines is key to safely having fun on the water, MacDonald said. While water sports are relatively safe, accidents do happen. Maine typically sees well under 100 reported recreational boating incidents a year, and annual boating fatalities in the state are usually in the single digits. For example, the most recent data provided by the Coast Guard show Maine had 43 reported boating incidents in 2018, including four deaths. That was slightly down from 2017, when Maine recorded 49 incidents and 11 deaths.

“Overall, boating is a very safe activity,” MacDonald said. “But it doesn’t take very many bad decisions to make for a bad accident.”

For more information on recreational boating safety, visit the Maine DIF&W website at mefishwildife.com. If you are planning to take part in a guided boat or fishing trip, COVID-19 prevention guidance for those businesses, in the form of checklists, can be found at maine.gov. And more information on the state’s COVID-19 response can be found at maine.gov/covid19.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...