Public safety officials urge caution for boaters, swimmers during busy holiday weekend

A picture-perfect Lake Minnetonka greeted water lovers on Saturday. A boater’s paradise.

“It’s been an incredibly busy summer,” says Sgt. Rick Waldon with the Hennepin County Water Patrol. “The landings, the boat launches are full, usually by 3 o’clock on a weekday, and 9 to 10 o’clock on Saturdays and Sundays.”

Waldon and deputy Matt Dreger are seeing a nexus between the pandemic and the popularity of boating.

“This is something you can do safely with your family and fall into the COVID guidelines with social distancing,” he said. “You’re out boating with your family, just enjoying the day.”

But there’s a troubling trend on the waters.

The Department of Natural Resources says 13 people in Minnesota have died in boating accidents this year, the highest number since 2011.

The Sheriff’s Office says there have been 10 drownings in Hennepin County and nine near-drownings so far this year, compared with 10 drownings and 12 near-drownings in all of last year.

"It’s people falling out of the boat, it’s people not knowing their swimming ability or the depth of the water they’re in,” Waldon said.

Even the waves, caused by another boat, can cause problems, especially for those on jet skis.

Waldon says there’s one piece of gear he considers crucial when going out on the water.

“One of the things we’re encouraging is to wear your life jacket,” he says. “It’s like your seat belt on the water."

There’s something else to consider this holiday weekend.

"I’m expecting traffic to continue to be busy,” Waldon notes. “And the water temperature is going to get cold and hypothermia is something people need to think about."

That means dressing warmly, in addition to the life jacket.

All of this adds up to more boaters are on the water, even as autumn beckons.

Waldon says that brings to mind another kind of safe distancing.

“You have to keep your head on a swivel and watch what’s going on around you,” he said. “I always worry about a collision. When you’re out here, there isn’t the traffic lanes that you have on the road and the white and yellow lines to stay in between.”