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Task force: slow down Va. boaters

Smith Mountain Lake residents call for speed limit, boater education after fatal crash in August

Smith Mountain Lake residents call for speed limit, boater education after fatal crash in August

A speeding sportboat that ran down a 34-foot cruiser in western Virginia at 10 o’clock on the night of August 20 ended the lives of a middle-aged couple but also ignited a movement there to rein in powerboaters and to mandate boating education for all boaters.

Mobilized by the deaths of their two neighbors, residents around Smith Mountain Lake, a 20,000-acre body of water near Roanoke, are pushing legislators to create rigid speed limits, to establish noise limits and to increase the number of enforcement officers on the state’s waters.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which polices state-controlled waters, Lawrence G. Lewis, 58, and his wife, Judith Spencer Lewis, 59, of Moneta, were cruising on Smith Mountain Lake that summer night in their 34-foot Wellcraft with their dog, a miniature dalmation. Near channel marker Red-24, they were overtaken by a speeding 36-foot Donzi, operated by the owner of a Moneta marina.

“[The Lewises] were struck from the rear,” says Julia Dixon, a department spokesperson. The Donzi “hit the transom and then traveled up into and over their boat. The Lewises and their dog died at the scene.”

Mark de Tourillion Sr., identified by Bedford County Commonwealth attorney Randy Krantz as the operator of the Donzi, was taken from the scene with non-life-threatening injuries. He was later charged with the misdemeanor of operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol and with six felony manslaughter charges carrying penalties ranging up to 20 years in prison.

“This particular accident involved a 36-foot Donzi with two 500-hp motors, traveling 60 miles per hour or maybe better at night,” says Ralph Brush, a retiree who says he moved to Smith Mountain Lake for its beauty and its boating. Brush, who heads a community task force that is pushing for more regulation, says he is a licensed captain and a United States Power Squadron member who has taught navigation and sailing.

“I have five boats: A 220-hp Sea Ray, an 18-foot American sloop, a Morgan 33 [sailboat] and a skull and an inflatable,” Brush says to establish his boating credentials. “All we want to do is to educate people, have them boat a little smarter, boat a little slower, boat defensively and understand the protocol and the regulations.”

Under Brush’s leadership, the Smith Mountain Lake Water Safety Task Force has published a list of regulations that include mandatory boater testing and a maximum speed limit across Virginia of 55 miles per hour during daylight and 25 miles per hour after dark. While these requirements would not be unique, they are unusual, according to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

“The general trend in the United States is going to some form of mandatory education,” says Ron Sarver, NASBLA deputy director. He says that more than 40 states require some sort of education, ranging from boating courses for 14- to 16-year-olds to the laws of Alabama, which require all boaters to take written tests in order to have boating certification as part of their state driver’s license. The Smith Mountain Lake task force recommendation is similar.

“I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about speed as a factor” or making concerted efforts to impose speed limits on boats, says Sarver.

Even Alabama, with its stringent licensing requirement, imposes no statewide speed laws, according to Lt. Erica Shipman, a spokesperson for the Alabama Marine Police Division. She notes that one municipality alone, Tuscaloosa, enforces 50 mph daytime and 30 mph nighttime speed limits on its 8,000-acre Lake Tuscaloosa.

“At this juncture, we’re coordinating with the task force,” says Virginia’s Boating Law Administrator, Charlie Sledd. “We’re not trying to direct their work. That’s up to the task force to do that. Once they come up with whatever recommendations they come up with — and it’s great to see these community-based task forces deal with these issues — then our department will be working very close with the state legislature to give them advice.”

Brush describes Smith Mountain Lake, which was created in the 1960s as a source for hydroelectric generation, as “just one of the prettiest places I’ve seen. Not overcrowded. We get the best of the weather here. Play golf a good part of the year.” There are only two traffic lights and perhaps 20,000 permanent residents along the 500 miles of shoreline that stretches into three counties, he says.

When the task force was formed, it began its work by gathering data. Brush found that between 2001 and 2005, there were 90 vessels involved in 45 collisions on Smith Mountain Lake. Of these, 30 were personal watercraft, 17 were rental boats, and 29 were borrowed boats.

“We’re starting to see a lot of inflatable tube accidents, and speed is a factor in a lot of these,” Brush says. Moreover, 63 of the 90 skippers involved in accidents were people who live 50 miles or more from the lake, and 69 of the 90 skippers did not have any boating training, he says.

As a result, the task force recommendations include proposals to require education for visiting boaters and provisions for tightening the regulation of tubing on the lake.

“When you look at 70 percent coming from out of the area, when you look at most of them not being educated in boating, you start to conclude that they really don’t belong on the lake, that they are unfamiliar with the vessel and they’re not familiar with protocol,” Brush says. “One of [the recent] fatalities was a visitor who just flew in and borrowed somebody’s [PWC]. He certainly did not have education about the lake.”

Despite the call for more regulation, Brush says his task force’s top priority is more enforcement. The group will ask legislators to increase the number of game wardens on the lake from 10 to

19 and to provide them with boats marked as police vessels, hoping that will deter speeders.

“The Bass Masters will hate it,” Brush says. “Some groups don’t want any regulation. They want to be as free as they can.” But he compares the situation to the Wild West. “This place isn’t lawless,” he says, but “a lot of people are moving in and they’re just fed up.”