A cruise to safer boating

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PITTSFIELD — The blue lights came on as Police Chief Michael Wynn puttered up to a stranded vessel on Onota Lake. The young operator struggled to start his craft's motor, looking helplessly at the approaching police boat.

"Two things," Wynn shouted over the noise of his boat's motor. "Are you OK?"

The boat's passengers, a family visiting from Pennsylvania, responded with an affirmative before raising up their life preservers to show the chief.

"That was going to be the next thing," Wynn said with a laugh.

The encounter between police and citizens on Thursday wasn't terribly dramatic, but it underscored the goals of a new effort by law enforcement to promote boater safety, especially as the city gears up for Independence Day festivities this weekend.

"Accidents happen. We try to prevent them as much as we can, that's why we're out here," said Lt. Thomas Dawley, who operated the boat with Wynn.

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The boat, which bore Wynn, Dawley and a reporter and photographer from The Eagle for a sunny afternoon on the lake, is a new addition to the department. Pittsfield police's old watercraft was retired last year, Wynn said, and having a boat is important to maintain safe conditions on the city's lakes.

The state's environmental police officers are in charge of policing all bodies of water in the Commonwealth, but the force finds itself spread thin because of the many lakes, ponds and rivers in Western Massachusetts. That's where Pittsfield's new boat comes in handy, as a way for the department to respond to incidents on the water when environmental police are not around.

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But on Thursday afternoon, Massachusetts Environmental Police Lt. Tara Carlow was patrolling the waters of Onota Lake alongside Pittsfield police and a boat from the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office. Her goal was to educate people ahead of this weekend, when amateur and alcohol-fueled boaters will flock to the lake.

"Throughout the whole year we're concerned with people operating under the influence with boats, but this weekend in particular is called Operation Dry Water," Carlow said. "It's kind of an increased alert to document and deter that. So we're going to be out specifically this weekend to make sure people are not drinking and operating vessels."

Operating a boat while intoxicated is just as illegal as operating a car, and it can get you in just as much trouble too, she said. But boating often demands more awareness than driving a car, making it extremely dangerous to add alcohol or drugs into an outing on the lake.

"On the water, it's more pronounced," Carlow said. "You have the sun factors, the wind, tons of people on your boat."

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If people are going to drink on their boat, Carlow advised to designate a driver who will not drink. Even with a sober driver, it's incumbent on those who imbibe not to get out of hand so they can help out the operator.

"Be reasonable with your drinks," she said. "If you're out here in the sun all day, three beers is going to hit you more than if you were on shore."

Still, law enforcement aren't trying to prevent people from enjoying the lake, as evidenced by a grinning Wynn throughout the boat ride.

"I want everybody to have a good time and to have fun, but it's the same mentality if you drive in a car," Wynn said. "It's a powerful piece of equipment, you need to pay attention."

Jack Lyons can be reached at jlyons@berkshireeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JackLyonsND.


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