GREAT SACANDAGA LAKE — The Great Sacandaga Lake multi-jurisdictional training exercise set to take place Thursday morning at the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District in Mayfield is now in its seventh year. It started with four or five boats in 2016, according to Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino. In 2022, nearly 100 personnel from more than a dozen agencies will take part.
“Every year it gets a little larger,” said Giardino, whose office organizes the event with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “But that’s good because what that does is it teaches us to network. So when we do have an actual, real-life incident, we all know each other from different agencies, we’ve all worked together and it makes it easier to work together on a real tragedy.”
The training, which is scheduled for Thursday at 11 a.m., takes place during National Safe Boating Week — this year May 21 through May 27. The initiative reminds boaters to brush up on boating safety skills and prepare for the season, according to the a release from the Safe Boating Campaign.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Department is annually joined by neighboring county sheriff’s departments in Montgomery and Saratoga counties. The three agencies have entered a Great Sacandaga Lake Safety Initiative, which Montgomery County Sheriff Jeffery Smith described as a mutual aid agreement.
Smith said, despite the name being connected to a specific body of water, the three departments are committed supporting each other whatever water-related situation arises. If one agency has a piece of equipment that another doesn’t, it is shared when needed. Last fall, Fulton County shared its side-scan sonar equipment with Saratoga County, which helped locate a victim in the Hudson River near in Halfmoon. Saratoga County provides the other two agencies with divers whenever needed.
All three sheriffs spoke to the importance of their collaboration, but they also spoke about the importance of education — letting the public know what it needs to know.
“More information has slowed people down, made them take a breath, look around, do a pause,” Giardino said.
Tragedy struck The Great Sacandaga Lake at the end of last summer when New York state trooper James Monda enter the water August 22 on Bunker Hill Road in Northampton and didn’t resurface until he was pulled from the water. The Rotterdam Junction man, 45, was a part of Troop G’s marine patrol. Giardino, sheriff of the area, said such an incident involving law enforcement on a training dive should heighten people’s awareness.
“If it can go wrong for us, it can go wrong for people who may be consuming alcoholic beverages, may be doing reckless thing or are just enjoying the lake and something goes sideways,” he said.
Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo said the most important safety measure he wanted to address with the community was not operating a vessel when intoxicated. He compared driving a boat to driving a car and encouraged boaters to follow all laws and rules as they would those of the road.
The sheriff said he has spoken to marinas and heard boat sales are up from last year. He said he understands many people will want to get back to the lakes as the area comes out of the pandemic. But, he wants to keep the environment safe for families, especially with children, out for a weekend this summer, and they’ll be doing all they can to support bordering counties as well.
“We’re going to have navigation patrols from the navigation unit out in full force, and not only on Saratoga Lake, but the other waterways,” Zurlo said.
Another tragedy happened on Saratoga Lake last summer on the Fourth of July when a 20-year-old Ballston Spa man jumped off a boat where several adults were hosting an underage drinking party, according to a December 23 statement by Saratoga County District Attorney Karen A. Heggen. One of the underage drinkers was at the wheel and turned the boat away from the man in the water, then hit him causing traumatic injuries before he was hit by another boat, according to a December 24 Daily Gazette report.
Zurlo said his department will be working with various agencies to avoid another tragedy like that one.
“We get a lot of complaints, either via 911 call or an email, during the week about various people driving recklessly on the lakes, and we’ll target that area to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Several woman who have lost loved ones on the Great Sacandaga Lake in recent years have jumped in to help in the work promoting safety on the water and providing resources. Theresa DaBiere-Craig of Perth lost her son Sean six years ago at the of 18. He went overboard while on the lake and he wasn’t wearing a life jacket and wasn’t connected to the engine cut off switch, which were two things that contributed to his death.
Since then, her family has raised the money for the sonar scanner for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department, donated throwable life rings to many waterfront venues and throwable rescue discs to many marine patrol units and emergency management agencies and they worked with the Broadalbin-Perth fishing club, Tanner Lumber and Bedrock Builders to build life jacket loaner stations in Driftwood Park Marina and at Vandenburgh Point.
Maria Ross lost her son Henry in 2016 at 24 when he was snowmobiling on the Great Sacandaga Lake. Her family began first by creating safe lake posters to let people know about available resource. Since then, she has come up with a resource of her own. The “Send It” app allows users to document debris at different points around the lake, which trails around the area are closed for hikers, ATV riders or others, it allows for someone to ask for help in a non-emergency and Ross said the most important feature is the SOS alert, which will send an alert to everyone within 20 miles.
“[It’s] not to replace 911 in any way, shape or form, but if somebody is closer to you and they can help, that’s what it’s for,” Ross said.
Craig shared resources as well, particularly that anyone looking to take a boat safety course can find one on the state Parks and Recreation Department website, including ones offered online. Smith said all boat operators in New York state, regardless of experience or age, must complete a boater safety class by 2025.
The Safe Boating Campaign recommends on its website taking one of these courses, checking equipment and letting someone on shore known where the boat is going, who is on it, who is driving and communication equipment on board. It also recommends many of the items the sheriffs address, including always making sure everyone onboard is wearing a life jacket.
Smith said this past weekend a larger boat came up the Mohawk River and was traveling through a canal. The narrow passage way created a wake that knocked over a few kayakers despite the boat obeying the 15 mile an hour speed limit. There were no injuries.
“If those kayakers had not had the proper safety vests, right? We could have had an incident,” Smith said.