As the Lake Erie boating season winds down, Sgt. Joe Boncek, in charge of the Rocky River Marine Patrol, believes this summer was one of the busiest he’s ever seen.
“I honestly can’t count how many warnings for safety violations we gave out this summer,” he said. “It was certainly a lot this year because of how many people were on the water. We won’t have solid numbers on how many warnings we gave until the end of the year.”
The bulk of warnings the patrol gave this summer involved people not wearing safety jackets. Those warnings were mostly given to people using kayaks and other paddleboards, Boncek said.
The increase in violations stems from the pandemic. Boncek believes that because public areas like theaters, restaurants and bars were slow to reopen after the state’s lockdown in March, people purchased kayaks and sailboards for adventure. For boating shops like Nalu Standup Paddle & Surf in Rocky River, boating has become so popular that pre-orders for next year have been booked solid until August, said owner Bill Cochrane.
“During a normal summer, I would have about 70 boards and boats for an entire season,” he said. “Because of the pandemic, we would get a shipment of 20 boards one day and they’d sell out instantly.
“We also recently joined the Lake Erie Water Trail by the Cleveland Metroparks. Because of that we have had a large number of people exploring it from other communities.”
This summer, the nine-man unit logged 600 hours patrolling the waters in Rocky River on the weekends. During that time, the patrol took part in 25 search and rescue cases — all of which involved paddleboarders and surfers.
One search stood out to Boncek. In April, two men tried to travel Lake Erie’s waters using kayaks. By the time they reached the mouth of the Rocky River, their boats were flipped over by the rough waters, still cold from the winter. The paddlers were found and rescued soon after.
On average, Boncek estimates 100 to 200 people used the lake per day this summer.
Last year, the patrol logged 698 hours on the water, issued 225 warnings and was involved in 24 search and rescue cases. The decrease in hours from last year to this year is a result of the patrol not being involved in major events in Cleveland like the Cleveland National Air Show.
In Bay Village, there have been 12 rescue cases involving the Bay Village Fire Department’s rescue boat, said Fire Chief Chris Lyons. The U.S. Coast Guard in Cleveland was involved in 162 rescue cases, including 11 in Rocky River, according to information provided by the agency.
The city’s marine patrol operates with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The city also pays $10,000 for any additional needs. The money goes to maintaining the boat, named the Argus V, and buying safety equipment such as life jackets.
Established in the 1960s, the Marine Patrol covers Lake Erie from Avon Point to Cleveland Harbor and out to the international border.
The patrol will continue to monitor the waters until the end of November, Boncek said.
“We’re one of the last patrol units to get out of the water just because you never know what can happen in the fall when the weather isn’t totally freezing yet,” he said. “It’s important we’re prepared for anything.”
Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216-307-6614.