Fun seekers in speed boats were quick to throw up a nervous wave on Saturday as the Maine Warden Service patrol boat sped past them on Sebago Lake.
For those boaters who were approached and checked by Warden Neal Wykes and Warden Sgt. Kyle Hladik, there was often a look of concern on their faces.
Boating and paddling bring with them inherent dangers such as the risk of drowning or being injured while in the water. The danger increases when people don’t wear a life jacket. And while boaters may think they’re prepared for a worst-case scenario, a recent ridealong with the Maine Warden Service showed that some aren’t taking the proper precautions.
Maine had 38 boating-related deaths from 2015-19, according to the National Association of Safe Boating Law Administrators. That included 28 drownings — 22 of which occurred with people who were not wearing life jackets. Ten deaths were not attributable to drowning.
In 2019 alone, Maine had 43 boating accidents resulting in 17 injuries and four deaths.
And just this summer, a fisherman who was not wearing a life jacket drowned on Roxbury Pond last week, and in June an angler on the East Branch of the Kennebec River drowned after his raft capsized. He was not wearing a life jacket.
Those numbers speak to why patrolling Sebago and other waters is serious business for game wardens, who are committed to making sure boat operators and anglers have registered their craft and are obeying safety and fishing laws.
They efficiently and quickly covered the southern and eastern part of the lake in a 25-foot rigid hull inflatable built by Safe Boats International that features twin 250-horsepower supercharged Mercury Verado outboards.
It didn’t take long before the wardens stopped a handful of boats that were not displaying an up-to-date registration sticker — or even a boat number — as required by state law.
One group of five people, cruising in a boat borrowed from a family member, quickly provided proof that the craft was registered. They also produced the required number of personal flotation devices, a fire extinguisher and proved the boat had a working horn.
However, after the occupants pulled the life jackets from a storage space in the stern, Wykes gave them some practical —and potentially life-saving — advice.
“People store their life jackets in the engine compartment, not thinking that if there’s a fire, they’re going to have to get off the boat and they’re not going to be able to get to the life jackets,” said Wykes, who is Maine’s longest tenured warden with 41 years of service.
He summed up his summer duties — which include monitoring boating, fishing and other activities in five southern Maine towns — simply: “Basically, it’s trying to teach common sense to people who don’t have it.”
The focus during Saturday’s warden patrol on Sebago was ensuring compliance with boating laws and sharing information about rules and safe operation.
The wardens have seen what happens when proper preparation and care are not taken.
“Things can go wrong pretty quick: you fall out of the boat and you can’t get to a life jacket in time to throw it to someone,” said Hladik who, as a member of the Maine Warden Service Dive Team, has recovered bodies of people who died in the water.
“We see, from the front row, situations end in tragedy, and we believe that we can help prevent some of those things from happening in the future and that’s what we want to do,” he said.
The wardens were unapologetic about the need to crack down on individuals who appear to be deliberately breaking the law or disregarding safe boating practices.
“We’re out here to promote safety, but we take a very hard line on it because of what we’ve seen,” Wykes said. “People that don’t take safety seriously end up paying the ultimate price.”
The wardens were friendly but direct upon encountering folks operating boats that did not have visible registration numbers and/or stickers. Everyone checked by the wardens was able to produce the required documentation.
“We’ll educate within reason, but we’re also in the enforcement business,” Wykes said.
A boating law they commonly see broken is exceeding headway speed inside the water safety zone, which is the area 200 feet from the shoreline of the mainland or an island. Some also don’t know that headway speed means the slowest speed at which a boat can move forward.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s boaters, snowmobiles, hunting, fishing. It’s the responsibility of the individual participating in that activity to take the time and know what the laws are,” Wykes said.
Ultimately, Saturday’s patrol on Sebago was cut short because of high winds and rough waters, which hampered the wardens’ efforts to perform checks and significantly reduced the number of boats on the lake.
Most boaters on Sebago were found to be in compliance with Maine laws, although some required a bit of a refresher course about how to properly display a registration.
“Lots of times, we’re not stopping people because they did anything wrong. It’s a lot of positive encounters,” Hladik said. “By and large, 90 percent of people are doing everything right.”