LAKE MARION – Ron Cunningham’s golf cart isn’t hard to miss around the inlets of Lake Marion near his home on Lake Arbu Drive in Wyboo.
He has an American flag on one side and a Pittsburgh Steelers flag on the other.
The Pennsylvania native came to South Carolina a little more than five years ago, and he’s been one of the go-to guys from Flotilla 12 of the Coast Guard Auxiliary around the lake for boaters to seek their free safety checks.
But he’s been doing the checks for a lot longer.
"My friend in Pennsylvania bought a boat right out of high school," Cunningham said. "I was just a few years older than he was, and his mom said he couldn’t put it in the water until he took the boating safety course there."
"I took the course with him, and that was 33 years ago," Cunningham said. "I’ve been concerned with or involved with boating safety ever since."
Cunningham said the checks are important not only for recreational boaters.
"Those who fish and hunt from their boats should also get them," he said. "And we provide them for any king of watercraft, including jet-skis, waverunners, kayaks, pontoon boats, jon boats and others."
Cunningham primarily deals with boats between 12 and 25 feet, however.
"Those are the ones we see the most," he said.
The checks allow those using boats on the lake "to know what they’re supposed to have," Cunningham added.
"They’re simple and straightforward," he said. "We let them know when certain things on the boat expire, like safety flares or fire extinguishers. The checks also let them know if any new boating laws have been implemented that year."
He said the past two years have seen no new laws, however.
"The checks let them know if their life-jackets and throwable floatation devices are up to the task of saving someone if they’re needed," Cunningham said. "We look for tears in those devices. A lot of people like to use the throwable devices as seat cushions, but we don’t recommend that."
He said, overall, the safety checks let him educate boaters who might not know everything they need to stay safe on the lake.
"There are some people that will just get a boat and think it’s pretty easy to operate it, but it’s not," Cunningham said. "We can’t make them do anything, but we can recommend and advise."
He said he always recommends that boaters have a "float plan" handy.
"Someone in your family, or a close friend should know when you’re going, where you’re going and when you plan to come back," Cunningham said. "If you’re going somewhere away from them, you should make sure they have emergency contact information for that location, like the Department of Natural Resources for that area, or the local police or sheriff’s office."
Cunningham said he starts every safety check – as a vessel examiner with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, he used to call them vessel examinations but has changed his lingo – by checking the boating registration.
"I make sure the registration is up-to-date, and talk with the owners about their registration," Cunnigham said.
He matches the registration number with the hull ID, and makes sure the South Carolina registration number is the same on the registration cards. He also checks to see that state stickers are up-to-date.
"And then I move on to the safety equipment," Cunnigham said.
This includes fire extinguishers, which Cunningham said should be tested at least once a year, although state law requires every three years.
"A lot of people look at the gauge and think, ‘Oh, it says I’m good,’" Cunningham said. "But the gauges get stuck. And then propellant can leak out, and your gauge is stuck and the fire extinguisher is absolutely useless."
"You don’t know it until you need it and it doesn’t work," Cunnigham said. "And then you have a disaster on your hands."
Cunningham also checks life jackets to make sure there are enough on board for all boaters – children younger than 12 must wear them at all times, while there must be one on board for every adult. While state law does not require adults to wear them at all times on a boat, Cunningham said it’s not a bad idea.
"Life jackets can get torn and then they’re not serviceable," Cunningham said. "So we check for tears and make sure they will operate when they’re needed."
Cunningham then checks the boating lines, the anchor, sound production devices like the boat’s horn, navigation lights, bells and whistles, and then he makes recommendations.
"Again, we can’t really tell them to do anything," Cunningham said. "But I always recommend what will help them in a problem situation."
Two of his typical recommendations include having a first aid kit and a VHF radio. The first, he said, is just common sense.
"I recommend the VHF radio over a CB, because it has a better range," Cunningham said. "And a lot of people these days use cell phones, but we have a lot of dead areas on the lake. If you get stopped in one and are having trouble, and you’re just trying to use a cell phone, you’re going to be in a world of hurt."
To see about getting your boat or watercraft inspected, call Cunningham at (803) 478-4300, or email email@example.com.