Potential Dangers of Boating on Big Bodies of Water


“Do as I say, not as I do.” How many times have you heard this from someone trying to make an excuse for some deed? I constantly preach water safety and urge folks to take a boating safety course. I like to emphasize the potential dangers of boating on big bodies of water, particularly our local “Big Pond,” Lake Michigan. Danger is not limited to the ever-changing conditions of Lake Michigan, but can apply to all bodies of water including power plant cooling lakes that are perched—elevated with no protection from the wind.

A recent experience brought home the folly of not heeding my own advice. The weather for the portion of the southern part of Lake Michigan called for north winds with one- to two-foot waves increasing later in the day. Jon Mineiko and I launched his 19-foot, fully equipped (including marine weather radio and a Maritime Mobile Service Identity System) Lund boat from Burn’s Ditch in Portage, Indiana. It was a nice day, we didn’t even bother to take his bimini top and zip-up cabin enclosure with us. As we exited the port, the waves were less than one foot and we proceeded eastbound so as to fish over the man-made reef.

Jon rigged up the rods with a smorgasbord of lures on downriggers, yellow birds, and flat lines. We were targeting cohos, steelhead, browns, lakers and kings. We trolled for about four hours with same coho and steelhead action when I mentioned that winds had picked up and I could see whitecaps. We were a-beam of the Indiana Dunes, waves increased to three to four feet. Jon suggested we break out the life jackets. Our location put us midway between Burn’s Ditch and Michigan City. The decision was made to head back to Burn’s Ditch where our car and boat trailer were located.

It was a slow ride back; the wave conditions made it impossible to get the boat up on plane. Jon did a great job of maneuvering the boat. We agreed that if conditions got worse and we took on water beyond the capability of the bilge pump, we would beach the boat as a last resort, never being more than 300 yards from shore. As it turned out, we, along with many other boats including the charter boats, arrived at the harbor about the same time. There was safety in numbers, but we saw no incidents.

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As a high time, commercial, multi-engine, instrument-rated pilot, I have been trained to be aware of weather-related aviation weather. You have to be aware of situations like thunderstorms, wing and propeller icing, wind shear, low ceilings, and crosswinds affecting takeoffs and landings. I have learned to interpret pre-flight weather briefings and plan accordingly. As you can see, weather plays an important part in my life, whether in the air or on the water! As to our Lake Michigan outing, all I can say is: “Do as I say, not as I did.”

Jim Kirby may be contacted at kirbyoutdoors@sbcglobal.net