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Cornelius News

Stern warnings about boating safety

Sebastian Mesanza helps with boat rentals at Crown Harbor Marina / Photo by Dave Yochum

Aug. 16. In 2019, the Coast Guard reported 4,168 accidents that involved 613 deaths, 2,559 injuries and approximately $55 million in damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents.

Where the cause of death was known, 79 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those victims, 86 percent were not wearing a life jacket.

Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. Where the primary cause was known, it was listed as the cause in 23 percent of deaths.

More than two-thirds of deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction.

Sadly, there have already been two deaths on Lake Norman this summer, the most recent one a man who was tubing without a life jacket.

Lax rules

There’s no rule or law stipulating skiers or those on a tube must wear a life jacket.

It turns out, there aren’t many rules. While state law says anyone born after 1988 must take a safety course, there’s no similar requirement for those born before.

State law does stipulate that anyone with a current Coast Guard captain’s license is shipshape and ready to go—as is someone with an expired license.

Similarly, anyone renting a boat is good to go as long as the individual “possesses a rental or lease agreement from a vessel rental or leasing business that lists the person as the authorized operator of the vessel.”

Accidents on the water

In June, shortly after a boat exploded at the gas dock at King’s Point Marina, a pontoon boat rental smacked into the stern of another pontoon boat. Luckily police were already on the scene, and there were no injuries.

Two years ago a Davidson teen was less fortunate. According to NC  Wildlife, she was in the lead vessel—a personal watercraft—when it was struck from behind by the second or “give way” vessel. She was “ejected from the watercraft, rendered unconscious in the water, and ultimately pronounced dead at Atrium Hospital Main Charlotte Campus. Cause: “The operator of Vessel Two … did not stop in time to prevent the collision.”


Claire Miley was only 15 years old.

Do renters know the rules?

Boats don’t have brakes; there are (mostly) no speed limits on the lake; and the rules of the road can be confusing.

The trailing or following vessel must always give way to the lead vessel. Likewise, the boat to starboard has right of way when two vessels are intersecting. A boat towing another boat has right of way over an unburdened boat.

On any given Sunday on Lake Norman, it’s apparent few boaters know the rules of the road.

Town will look at rental guidelines

Local officials are trying to do something about it, especially now that Cornelius has taken over lake patrol duties from Mecklenburg County.

After inquiries from Cornelius Today, Mayor Woody Washam assigned the town attorney to “dig deeper into the state statute to determine whether there is capacity to locally improve this matter within our jurisdiction.”  Legal staff will also consult with the mayor, police chief and town manager for any recommendations over the next 30 days.


NC Sen. Natasha Marcus is working closely with the Lake Norman Marine Commission to enact legislation that would require anyone being towed by a boat or personal watercraft to wear an approved life jacket.

Right now, there’s also no requirement for a “spotter,” someone whose job it is to keep an eye on the skier or tuber behind the boat, so the captain can focus on where he or she is going and not steer into another boat or a dock.

Morris Sample, executive director of the Lake Norman Marine Commission, said the current law is absurd. “We’re trying to get it changed … to require life jackets while tubing or skiing,” he said, but it takes time. Legislation stalled last year—and this year.

The proposed legislation would mandate life jackets for anyone being towed behind a vessel, as well as either a spotter or a panoramic rear-view mirror. It would also stipulate that tubing and skiing end by sundown.

Senate Bill 267 has not been given a hearing, Marcus said.

Some people blame boat rentals and short-term vacation home rentals—they often come with a boat—for boating mishaps. You can even rent boats from private individuals, thanks to apps like GetMyBoat.com.

Anyone can rent

Maj. Ben Meyer,  with NC Wildlife, said there is no boating license or certification required for vessel rentals. “Operators of rented vessels are only required to possess a rental or lease agreement that lists them as the authorized operator,” he said.

But Kimberly Thaxton, owner of Crown Harbor Marina and Boat Rentals, said she speaks to each renter on the phone and asks about their boating experience—it’s a prerequisite—on Lake Norman.

The minimum age to rent at Crown Harbor is 32.

The economics of safety

“It is too expensive for us to be without a boat for weeks out of our short summer season, so we are extremely particular about who we rent to.  We cater to small parties with lots of boating experience for everyone’s safety, including the other boaters on the lake,” Thaxton said.


Mike Nuzzolese, owner of Cornelius Pontoon Rentals, forbids tubing behind his three rental boats.  “I turn down a lot of people…if they are inexperienced,” he said, explaining that he requires anyone born after 1988 to complete an online boating safety course before taking the helm.

Similarly, Marc Graveline, owner of Carefree Boat Club, said in-person and online safety courses are required for members.

“Once a member has completed the classroom portion of the training, we have them attend a boat handling instructional course behind the wheel of a boat,” he said.

Courtesy goes a long way

Experienced Cornelius sailor Robert Lowrance said it’s often a hot mess out there on a hot weekend.

“Everybody has the right to use the lake but you have to be courteous,” he said, much like driving a car. “Know the rules, understand the right of way and slow down.”