PORT HURON, Mich. (AP) — On an overcast afternoon in January, U.S. Coast Guard BOSN William Hosford recalled the 14-foot aluminum boat they used to use for ice rescues.
“It took basically all of us to carry it from a trailer, down across a beach, and then we would have to drag it along the ice until we got to the water,” he told the Times Herald of Port Huron. “Then we had to get into the boat.”
The boat was replaced with an inflatable craft that’s more portable and lightweight. It has several different uses, such as serving as a bridge to disperse weight to pull someone out of the ice, or as a safety tool for rescuers who may need to cross a frozen surface. And, it inflates in seconds, Hosford said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this month ice cover remains limited across the Great Lakes Region, with ice mainly being found in some bays.
But U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Nick Monacelli said that could change quickly depending on weather patterns. As a precaution, U.S. Coast Guard Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Kyle Thomas said it is always important to know how to stay safe on the ice, and when to stay off it.
“We have no way of knowing how thick the ice will be, since things like water current, waterfowl presence, rotting vegetation, or waves could delay ice formation, or significantly weaken the ice,” Thomas said.
As the spring approaches, ice can deteriorate, and what might appear to be thicker may be breaking down and unsafe.
When talking about staying safe while doing activities on the ice, such as ice fishing, the U.S. Coast Guard uses the acronym I.C.E., which stands for information, clothing and equipment.
Thomas said before people head out on the ice, they should have the appropriate weather forecast, as well as being knowledgeable about the types of ice they’ll be walking on and potential thickness.
“You can be the most experienced person in the world, but you and I both know the weather can change in a heartbeat,” Thomas said.
For clothing, Thomas recommends wearing bright-colored clothing and a buoyant floatation device. He recommended against wearing an inflatable life jacket due to the risk of hitting your head if it inflates under ice.
Thomas also recommends carrying a personal locator beacon, a submersible radio and a screwdriver or ice awl that can be used to dig into the surface to pull someone out of the water in the event they fall through the ice.
If someone is planning to go on the ice, Thomas also recommends they come up with a float plan to let others know where they’re going and when they plan to return. He recommends party-members keep a distance to reduce the chance of others falling through if someone does.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a mobile app available that has options to help users file float plans, as well as find information on required equipment, buoy data and NOAA weather station information.
“The biggest thing is, the best defense is a good offense,” Thomas said.
Thomas also warned against driving on the ice. If a vehicle falls through, there can be penalties that range from $250 to $11,000 in pollution and recovery fees.
Ben Lasher, a conservation officer with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division, said boaters have a lot more to take into consideration during the colder months.
Lasher recommends boaters wear a dry suit or other kind of survival suit.
“The real bulky winter clothing that we would wear to stay warm is going to absorb more water if you end up in the water,” he said. “You might be nice and warm above the surface but once you fall in the water you’ve created a real bad situation where you might not be able to swim.”
Boaters should also be aware that accumulated icing on their craft can affect stability, especially on smaller vessels, Thomas said.
Boaters should also be aware of conditions, Thomas said. As ice breaks up in the spring and begins to move south along rivers, it can pose a hazard to mariners as striking one at speed could be dangerous.
“I would not advise recreational boaters to operate their vessels in the ice or to break through ice, due to the likelihood of hull or engine damage, or injury,” Thomas said.
Lasher added that boaters should be aware of how thick their hull is so if they do encounter ice, they know how much damage it can take.
Should boaters choose to go out, it is recommended that they create a float plan and carry an operational VHF-FM marine radio. They should also go out in pairs in case of an emergency.
“The joy of catching a fish is not worth someone’s life,” Lasher said. “A little bit of common sense can go a long way.”
Any water under 77-degrees Fahrenheit is considered cold water and puts people at a risk of submersion hypothermia, Thomas said. Even on a warm day, if someone enters cold water, they will experience a cold shock response, which is the involuntary gasp reflex that happens.
A screwdriver or an ice awl can also be used to help a person pull themselves out of the ice before they lose the dexterity in their fingers.
A personal locator beacon and a submersible radio should always be carried so people can call for help if they need it, Thomas said.
In addition to a working bilge pump, boaters should also carry a backup device such as a hand pump or a bucket to help get water out of a boat should the hull become damaged and leak, said Lasher. Most newer boats are designed so they won’t sink entirely unless there are other catastrophic failures, but many older boats don’t have these safety features.
“Most boats made today have enough designed floatation in them they’re not going to sink such as the Titanic did,” he said.