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Lake Norman boat patrols expect busy July Fourth weekend

David Boraks
A North Carolina wildlife officer steers a patrol boat on Lake Norman on Friday, July 1, 2022.

The July Fourth weekend is here. Many people are making plans that involve cookouts, pools and fireworks. Many others are planning to take their boats out on Lake Norman and other area lakes.

The Fourth of July is one of the busiest times of the year on the lake, and this year could be even busier because many people are feeling less worried about COVID-19, and many people bought boats for the first time during the pandemic.

The number of registered boats in North Carolina is up 8.5% compared to 2019, according to the state's Wildlife Resources Commission, and wildlife officers have been issuing more citations to people on the water. Some 440 citations were given out during the 2021 Fourth of July weekend in North Carolina, compared to roughly 370 citations on the holiday weekend in 2020.

Among the wildlife law enforcement officers who will be on patrol on Lake Norman this Fourth of July weekend is Sgt. William Laton. He spoke to WFAE's Nick de la Canal about what officers were anticipating.

Nick de la Canal: What are officers looking out for on the water?

Sgt. William Laton: When a North Carolina wildlife officer is on patrol working boating, their main goal is just to make sure the public is safe. We look for any number of boating violations, from registration to maybe an impaired operator. That's mainly what we're doing when we're working boating.

De la Canal: Have there been more or fewer boats out this summer?

Laton: Memorial Day is the kickoff for the boating season here in the Piedmont of North Carolina, and we saw a very, very large crowd on Memorial Day weekend. Since then, crowds have been a little less than what we anticipated. I assume that's probably due to gas prices and people traveling elsewhere.

We've still been very busy, but a little less boating activity than what we had anticipated between the weekend of Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. We do believe that the Fourth of July will be very busy. It always is.

De la Canal: Have boaters been on their best behavior?

Laton: It's been a pretty good summer. We've not seen too much craziness. We have been able to detect and arrest several impaired operators while working on area lakes this summer, and then we've had general boating violations — no-wake zone violations, registration violations, folks who've not completed a boat safety class, as required by law, and operating without that certification. Those have been the main things that we've seen.

De la Canal: Why might officers approach a boat or jet ski?

Laton: Many times, especially with a personal watercraft or jet ski, what we see is people operating too fast in and around swimmers or a vessel that's anchored like maybe at a local sandbar or local hangout on the lake. That's one of the main things that we see.

Or then we see impaired operation. We're able to detect that an operator is impaired based on cues and clues we see while we're talking to them, and from there, we just go through the process to determine if they're impaired or not, and if they're impaired, then they're going to be arrested and they'll go to the Mecklenburg County jail and go before a magistrate.

De la Canal: How do wildlife officers work with other law enforcement agencies?

Laton: Things can get out of hand very quickly on a busy holiday weekend, but without agencies like Cornelius PD, CMPD on Lake Wylie and Mountain Island Lake, the local county agencies — Iredell, Catawba, Lincoln County sheriff's offices — we all work together because if we tried to do by ourselves, we would probably not be very effective.

It takes everybody being on the same team to coordinate and just keep the public safe while boating.

De la Canal: What are officers predicting for this holiday weekend?

Laton: I feel like it's going to be a very busy weekend, and we're going to have plenty of activity to contend with. Our main thing is going to be just safe operation and making sure folks are not allowing an impaired driver to drive the boat.

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Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal