By Jim Newell
Memorial Day marked the unofficial beginning of the boating season, with boaters, personal watercraft users, swimmers and kayakers all taking to the lakes for another season of summer fun in Lake Orion.
The summer also marks the return of Oakland County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Hughes to Lake Orion for another season of patrolling one of the most eventful lakes in the county.
“It’s one of our busiest lakes, along with White Lake, because of all the traffic,” Hughes said of Lake Orion. “For the most part, people are relatively safe and considerate. They just want to have a good time. And, for the most part – knock on wood – I haven’t had any major incidents out here in a while.”
While Hughes primarily will be on Lake Orion – all 500 acres of lake and the network of canals and bays – throughout the summer, there are 20 OCSO Marine Patrol boats in Oakland County at various other lakes.
Hughes also wants to make sure boaters and personal watercraft users (PWCs) know and obey the rules of the lake, preventing any incidents that could ruin their fun – or someone’s life.
Hughes started working for the sheriff’s department in January 1995 and has been on the marine unit since 2005. After 12 years on the water he’s seen – and heard – all the excuses people give when he stops them.
But, for the most part he says, people appreciate the information he provides and wave him down if they have concerns.
He’s come to know many of the locals, stopping by for a chat to make sure everything is okay and let people know he’s around if needed.
There are three tiers of safety and conduct that Hughes looks for while on patrol:
Hughes said his first priority is the safety of water users – boaters, personal water craft (PWC) users and swimmers.
He checks to make sure boaters and PWCs follow the “slow, no wake” rules and are not too close swimmers.
Boaters and PWCs must adhere to a 100-feet rule, keeping away from shorelines and docks. Hughes said that it’s for the safety of the swimmers and raft users, and warns people that a swimmer could be underwater when they drive their boats by, only to have the swimmer surface in their path.
The second tier is education and public relations.
While riding with Hughes, one can see that he knows many of the people on the lake by name. They wave in greeting or flag him for questions,
“I give a lot of warnings and try to educate people,” Hughes said. “We try to educate as much as possible and when that doesn’t work we break into the citations.”
Hughes said on a typical summer day he can give 30 or more warnings and make up to 50 stops on a busy Saturday, most to PWCs.
As he patrols, Hughes checks to make sure watercraft have the proper registration tabs.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make is that registration tabs expire March 31 of the year,” Hughes said, adding that people must now have the 2018 tabs. “A friendly reminder is all it usually takes because they don’t realize it.”
The third tier is citations.
Hughs records each stop in log book, documenting the boat or PWC owner, the registration and the basics of the stop.
“And that comes in handy for court,” he says. “For the most part, everyone is very cordial out here, but you do get the one out of 20 who think they know the law better than I do and want to argue.”
“If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re not going to be stopped by me,” Hughes said.
While boaters can consume alcohol and have open intoxicants on the water, they must still be below a blood alcohol content of .08 when operating a watercraft. Hughes said he occasionally has to cite someone for being above the limit, especially on holiday weekends.
One of the biggest mistakes PWC users make is being underage or not carrying their boater safety certificate on them – 80 percent of the citations Hughes issues are for PWCs.
Those 14 and 15 years of age may operate a PWC legally only if they have obtained a boating safety certificate and:
Are accompanied on board by his or her parent or legal guardian or by a person as least 21 years of age who has been designated by the parent or legal guardian or,
Are operating or riding the PWC at a distance of not more than 100 feet from a parent or legal guardian or from a person at least 21 years of age who has been designated by the parent or legal guardian.
Those born before July 1, 1996, may operate a boat legally without restrictions
Those born on or before December 31, 1978, may operate a PWC legally without restrictions. Anyone born after that has to have a certificate.
“I really encourage everybody, even if they’re over 38, to take a boater’s safety class,” he said. “You can’t have too much information out here.”