STILLWATER – New York State Park Police Officer Ryan Cady was one of the first members of law enforcement to arrive at the scene of the July 4, 2021, fatal boating accident on Saratoga Lake.
It was a typical busy holiday on the water, the lake full of tubers, fishermen, JetSkis.
“This lake fills up. You can’t drive in a straight line,” Cady said Tuesday while driving the very boat he captained that day last summer. “Then you get to Sandy Bay and there will be 100 boats anchored.”
By the time Cady arrived, he said he already knew it was a fatal accident, and there was little more he could do than tend to the boat with the victim.
On Tuesday, Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo announced that his office, alongside New York State Police, New York Park Police, New York Environmental Conservation Police and Town of Stillwater Police together will increase enforcement on waterways in Saratoga County this summer in an effort to prevent incidents like the one that occurred last year.
“We’ll have extra boats on all the waterways,” Zurlo said, declining to provide specifics about the ramped-up patrols, saying he didn’t want to give away strategic information.
The goal is to prevent tragedies like the death of 20-year-old Ian Gerber, a 2019 graduate of Ballston Spa High School, who died on July 4 after being struck by the propeller of a pontoon boat after jumping off the boat in Sandy Bay.
The boat’s driver, Blake Heflin, admitted to prosecutors that he was drunk at the time. Heflin, of Malta, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of assault in the third degree and boating while intoxicated before Judge James A. Murphy III. Heflin avoided jail time under a plea deal with County District Attorney Karen Heggen, who said she was hamstrung by a lack of cooperation from witnesses.
On Tuesday, Zurlo said the investigation into Gerber’s death has been closed. The sheriff said his focus is on preventing future accidents.
“Safety is the priority,” Zurlo said during a press conference with law enforcement and local leaders, including Heggen, Town of Stillwater Supervisor Edward Kinowski and Town of Malta Supervisor Mark Hammond at Brown’s Beach in Stillwater. “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable. There is absolutely no reason for any person to operate a motorized vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If you see someone operating a vessel in that condition, call us.”
More than 20% of boating fatalities in New York State between 2005 and 2021 involved alcohol as a primary contributing factor, according to Shawnda Walbridge, with the New York State Police.
Alcohol can affect someone even more significantly out on the water, where fatigue sets in from the sun, constant balancing, and the noise of motors and wind, Cady said.
“A .08 (blood alcohol level) might not feel that bad to you when you’re sitting in your backyard, but when you’re sitting out here on the lake all day, it’s exhausting,” Cady said.
Last year, there was an increase of 6,051 registrations to bring the total of registered vessels in New York to 439,508, and the state had 18 reported fatal boating accidents last year, according to New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. New York’s fatality rate was 4.10 deaths per each 100,000-registered watercraft in 2021, with the long-term average being 4.60 since 2000. New York had fewer total reported accidents (192) and injuries (118) in 2021, compared to 2020, according to the state’s recreation department.
Still, death on the water remains a real risk. Already this year, a 47-year-old woman died earlier this month after a boating incident on Thompson’s Lake in Albany County.
Law enforcement and other community leaders said boat traffic has increased on Saratoga Lake as the county’s population has increased, though they said there wasn’t an easy way to quantify the increase in boat traffic.
“Over the past number of years we’ve seen a significant increase in people enjoying Saratoga Lake,” said Eliot Cresswell, president of the Saratoga Lake Association, a community group that supports increased police presence on the lake. “The tragic death last year is a stark reminder to all of us of the need for greater vigilance and enforcement. With greater visible patrols on the lake, we look forward to enjoyable and safe recreation throughout the summer.”
New York State law requires all motor boat operators born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, to have a boating safety certificate. By 2025, all motor boat operators will need such a certificate.
Increased patrols this year could mean everything from ensuring that boats have proper safety equipment such as life jackets to arrests for boating while intoxicated, Cady said.
“No one likes getting pulled over by the police on a boat during their day of recreating, but if that’s what it takes – make a couple people miserable – to keep this lake from getting out of control, that’s what it takes.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.