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Officials Encourage Safety on Lake Erie and Cuyahoga River Ahead of Summer Boating Season

Cuyahoga River in Cleveland
Taylor Haggerty
Cleveland officials are encouraging safety and caution ahead of the summer season on the water.

Cleveland residents and visitors were urged to familiarize themselves with safety protocols before heading out on the water during a riverfront “opening” press conference Wednesday, ahead of what promises to be another busy summer season on the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie.

The Cuyahoga River isn’t just a recreational state water trail; it’s also an active transportation corridor for commercial freight vessels. The pandemic brought more boaters to the river last summer, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Maginot, along with higher rates of accidents and injuries.

“If you’ve spent time investigating tragedies on the water, as many of us have, you’ll see that some very basic tools like a life jacket could’ve made a very unfortunate scenario a completely different situation,” Maginot said.

Boaters should avoid alcohol and tell others where they’re going on the water, Maginot said, as well as when they plan to return. That information can help the Coast Guard if there is an emergency.

“There’s a lot of pre-planning you can do before you get underway to enjoy our beautiful river system to ensure that while you’re out operating, you’re doing it safely,” Maginot said. “And then while you’re out doing it, put protections in place to protect yourself and your family.”

Because of the shared purposes of the river, kayaks and smaller boats should be aware of any approaching commercial vessels, said PHASTAR President & CEO Drew Ferguson. PHASTAR assists in rescues and other needs along the river and lakefront, he said, and saw a spike in the number of emergencies last year.

“We really tell people to have situational awareness of what’s going on around you. As people walk down the street with their cell phones out, so do they on their jet skis or their kayaks,” Ferguson said. “Suddenly, they look up and here comes one of the inter-lake steamship vessels, and they don’t have any idea what to do.”

Anyone in the water should stay vigilant and focus on their surroundings, he said.

The river offers a variety of environments that require different levels of skill to navigate, said Andrea Irland, an outdoor recreation planner with the National Park Service. As new visitors come to explore, she said, they should be aware of what level of difficulty they’re operating in.

“They want to experience new places, not just in their own backyard,” Irland said, “and it’s driving people to come up here to have the really different experience of paddling in the shipping channel.”

Visitors should familiarize themselves with safety protocols before heading out on the water, Irland said, like checking the weather for coming storms and familiarizing themselves with the risks of the area.

Access to the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie was essential in helping Downtown Cleveland weather the pandemic, said Downtown Cleveland Alliance Interim President Michael Deemer. The water-side amenities helped to draw people to the area even as events were canceled, he said.

“When we didn’t have the crowds in Downtown Cleveland we typically have, we didn’t have office workers because people were working remotely, one of the things that we did have was a residential population that swelled to over 20,000,” Deemer said. “And one of the greatest assets for downtown residents over the last year were our waterfronts.”
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