In the heat of summer, nothing is more refreshing than a boat ride. Whether it is a peaceful sojourn on a kayak, a boating-in-slow-motion pontoon cruise, or an exhilarating ride on a speedboat, boating is a pleasure many enjoy, especially on hot summer days. No matter the craft, two points are important to remember: boating laws and boating courtesy. Following the law will keep you and those around you safe. Boating courtesy upholds the gentility of the pastime and is, simply, the application of good manners.
John Bunge has been a boater all his life. Growing up in North Carolina, Fred Bunge, John’s father, always had boats. John enjoyed every type of boat for as far back as he can remember, in lakes, on rivers, and on the ocean. “It is second nature for me to be out on the water,” says John.
A boating education course is the best place to start before operating a motorized watercraft on any body of water. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources offers this three-part course on a regular basis for a nominal fee. Another source of boater safety training is the United States Power Squadron, or America’s Boating Club. The USPS was founded in 1914 by boaters to increase boater education and safety.
“I am Power Squadron-certified. The United States Power Squadron is quite an organization,” John says. “In addition to safe boating courses, members go along the South Carolina waterways checking buoys, charts, and depths to ensure information is accurate.”
The rules of safe boating can be summarized into three basic points: practice good seamanship, keep a sharp lookout, and maintain a safe speed and distance. Good seamanship requires knowing the rules of boating. After learning the basics of proper boat maintenance and registration, boaters must follow basic safety precautions.
One rule is to ensure the boat’s capacity is not exceeded. Each boat has a capacity plate, either near the operator’s position or on the transom, that designates the maximum weight or people the vessel can hold. Sufficient life jackets must be available for everyone on board. On longer trips let someone know what your travel plans are. Lights are important when boating at night. Depending on the size of your boat, a light or lights must be on from sunset to sunrise.
“We moved to Columbia in 1980 and got our first boat around that same time,” says John. “We mainly used it on Lake Murray. Over the years we noticed increasing numbers of speedboats on the lake and increasing numbers of accidents.”
A very important rule in boating is knowing what the correct position of your boat should be in relation to other boats on the water. When meeting another boat head on, both boats should keep to the starboard, or right side, similar to the rules for cars. Sometimes one boat needs to cross in front of another when changing direction. When that happens and both boats are powerboats, the boat to the operator’s port, or left, side is the “give-way” vessel and should yield by turning to port.
The turning vessel is the stand-on, or right-of-way, vessel. In the same situation with powerboat vs. sailboat, the sailboat is the stand-on vessel, meaning that the powerboat should yield to the opposite direction. When passing in the same direction, the overtaking vessel is the give-way vessel, meaning that it should go to one direction or the other while passing.
“In 2017, we bought a place at Lake Lure,” says John. “Ninety percent of the boats on Lake Lure are pontoons. Not a lot of high-speed boats are used there like there are on Lake Murray. So, when you see a ski or speedboat, you notice.”
Like vehicle navigation, navigational signals are also used on the water. When coming into a cove or port, markers and buoys signal where boats can safely go. Red buoys, or nuns, should remain to the right of the boat when coming into port. Green buoys, or cans, should be kept to the left. Other nondirectional buoys include mooring buoys and informational buoys that designate controlled areas or those that warn of danger.
Controlling your boat’s wake is important. A large wake can endanger a smaller boat or capsize a kayak. It is common courtesy not to cause unnecessary wake for smaller boats. Similarly, it is considered good boating manners to stay away from boaters who are fishing. Keeping a sharp lookout for other vessels is absolutely essential for safe boating. When traveling by car, a driver relies on roadways and traffic controls to know where other cars are. On the water, another boat can be anywhere. A boat driver’s eyes must stay on swivel.
“Last summer was going to be the first real summer using our pontoon boat on Lake Lure,” says John. It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, May 28. John’s entire family gathered for a family picnic on the water, including Evie, his wife; Hannah, their daughter; Rick, their son; Kaitlin, Rick’s wife; and Raelyn, Kaitlin and Rick’s infant daughter.
“At around noon, we went down to the boat slip and loaded onto the boat. It was a sunny, beautiful day,” John says. Evie and Hannah were on each side of the boat in front of the driver’s console where John was. Kaitlin was opposite John, with Raelyn in a stroller. Evie suggested that Kaitlin take the baby to the back of the boat under the cover so she wouldn’t get sunburned.
“As we started out, I noticed a guy pulling two young girls on an inner tube,” John says. “I didn’t pay much attention to him other than he was driving in erratic circles and trying to bounce the kids on the tube.” They went through a small cove to see some houses, then left to travel across the main intersection on the way to their picnic area. John noticed the speedboat was now much closer.
“All of a sudden, he made a turn and was parallel to us,” says John. On paper, the boater was doing what he was supposed to. He had his son designated as lookout and he was driving the boat. But he was so busy watching the effect of his turns that he turned his back to the steering wheel while going 30 miles per hour, still zigzagging.
“He started turning towards us, unaware how close he was.” John says. “I jumped up and started yelling and waving my arms. Evie and Hannah were yelling, too. He turned around and at this point he’s coming at us at a 90-degree angle. The last thing I remember is his eyes bugged out, and he just froze.”
“I call it the ‘Story of a Hundred Miracles,’” John says. “His boat hit ours and went sailing over the top, at exactly the spot where Kaitlin and Railyn had been just moments before. The bottom of the other boat destroyed the console of my boat, hit me, and knocked me into the water, face down and unconscious. The girls on the inner tube were old enough to know to bail off the inner tube, otherwise they certainly would have been killed. Rick saw me go into the water and dove in to find me. At first he couldn’t find me, but then he dove under the boat and found me underneath.”
Rick got John out from under the boat and, with the help of other boaters, onto the floor of the pontoon. As Evie and Hannah were tending to him, a woman who identified herself as a nurse came up and offered a first-aid kit. When the women turned around again to talk to the helpful woman, she was nowhere to be seen.
John was airlifted to Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System. He suffered a broken nose and a number of broken facial bones, including his right eye socket and his cheekbone. He remained at the Spartanburg hospital for four nights, then came home to Columbia for facial surgery on Sunday, which included five titanium plates.
“You hear about people in car accidents saying, ‘I didn’t have time to do this or that’ — that’s what happened here,” says John. “I didn’t have time to do anything but yell and wave my arms at the other driver.” No one else in either boat suffered any injuries, including John’s baby granddaughter. “The Lord was protecting me and my family. Angels were there guarding us. If you don’t believe miracles happen, they do. I’m a living example.”
When a boater sees another in distress, they should assess the situation to see how they can help. If it is serious enough, the Coast Guard or other law enforcement should be called. It is also important to know the degree to which you can be helpful without endangering yourself or your passengers. Offering first-aid kits when needed is certainly recommended. Also, if a boat needs to be towed, it is nice to offer to do so, but you do it at your own risk. DNR reported 201 recreational boating accidents in 2021, a dramatic increase over the 10 years before, which was likely influenced heavily by the pandemic.
With the fun of boating comes immense responsibility. Boaters must follow safe boating laws and remain constantly vigilant, not only on behalf of themselves but for everyone else sharing the water, too.