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Stay safe on Lady Bird Lake by following basic safety rules

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Venture onto Lady Bird Lake these days, and you might think you've landed in a watery version of the old video game "Frogger," in which green amphibians dodge cars as they try to cross a busy street.

Between rowing sculls, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, hydrobikes and swan-shaped pedal boats, the lake at peak hours has become a bustling highway. And like clogged interstates, it also has grumpy drivers and occasional collisions, like one witnessed last month by paddler Debbie Richardson.

Richardson, a four-time veteran of the grueling Texas Water Safari, was paddling east from Red Bud Isle in her 30-foot carbon racing canoe when she noticed a rower bearing down on a couple of teen-agers on stand-up paddleboards on the opposite side of the lake.

Richardson watched as the rower struck one of the paddleboarders, knocking her into the water. The rower then berated the stand-up paddler for getting in the way, she says.

"It was like road rage on the river," Richardson says.

No one was injured in that incident, but with so many people on the lake, some of them skilled and some out for the first time, conflicts inevitably happen.

"We've already got a well-utilized lake community, and you throw all that plus increased renters and more people moving to Austin and holy God do you have a perfect storm," says Kimery Duda, owner and director of the Expedition School, which offers stand-up paddle lessons and rentals on Lady Bird Lake as well as basic water rescue classes.

"We're trying to grow a community of people who know what they're doing," Duda says. "We always encourage stand-up paddlers, canoes and kayakers to stay on the periphery because we share the water with rowers, who don't have eyes on the back of their head."

Not everyone knows that basic navigational rules apply to the lake, says John O'Donnell, a lake patrol unit officer with the Austin Police Department.

"It's like a highway," O'Donnell says. "You've got to stay to the right of center."

Boaters — including paddlers and stand-up paddleboarders — can be ticketed for reckless or negligent operation if they don't stick to that rule. (It's legal to cross the river, too, but boats and boards shouldn't just hang out in the middle of the lake.)

Other basics to remember? City ordinance prohibits swimming in Lady Bird Lake or jumping off any bridge into the lake. Motorized boats are not allowed unless they have a permit, and all watercraft, even the muscle-powered kind, are banned between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. All watercraft, including canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, must carry a personal flotation device for each person on board, O'Donnell says.

Everyone on the lake should be aware that different users move at different speeds and need varying amounts of time to turn or stop in the water.

"Rowers can sneak up on you because they're moving fast and they're practically silent," says Curt Slaten, a canoe builder and winner of the men's solo canoe division in the 2011 Texas Water Safari. "And they go backwards."

To help keep things safe, most rowers are trained to look over their shoulder at least every five strokes, says Sara-Mai Conway, director of the Austin Rowing Club. Slower sculls are encouraged to stay closer to shore and faster ones pass toward the middle of the lake.

"When you're in a kayak it's pretty easy to turn right or left within a matter of strokes, but really good rowing shells can be going 10 mph and can't change direction on a dime," Conway says. "When you're moving 10 mph, you can't come to a sudden stop."

"We try really hard to always have an eye out, but it's easy to have someone jump in front of you or seemingly pop out of nowhere, and you can't stop on time."

Stand-up paddlers and kayakers sometimes lie down on their boards or boats to relax. It can be hard for non-rowers to gauge how quickly rowers are coming at them.

"When they lie down they're so low-profile its really difficult to see them," Conway says. "Their eyes might be closed, they're hanging out, they might have headphones on."

Everyone should use caution when crossing the river and at certain blind spots, like bridges, she says. Rowing sculls can only safely pass under one bridge arch in each direction, and if it's blocked there's nowhere else they can go without breaking the traffic pattern.

In an effort to improve safety on Lady Bird Lake, the Austin Rowing Club is part of a new group made up of lake-oriented businesses called Lady Bird Navy, which communicates about safety, events, weather and other issues via an electronic mailing list.

What can you do to stay safe on the water?

First, know how to swim before you head out. Consider taking a water rescue course. Stay alert and watch out for others. Leave the headphones at home.

"It's just like the trail," says Richardson, the paddler. "We all have to share it and give each other the same common courtesy. Everybody needs to be aware they're not the only one out there, and everyone's got to be polite and respectful no matter what activity they're enjoying."

Conway agrees.

"There's definitely a way we can all share the lake; there's plenty of room," Conway says. "It's just a matter of making everyone aware enough of the hazards and trying to follow a traffic pattern and be on the same page."

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

Tips for staying safe on Lady Bird Lake

Think of the lake as a highway and stay to the right.

If you're moving slowly, stick close to shore.

Don't assume others are moving at the same pace you are moving.

If you're moving quickly, hold a straight, predictable line; don't change direction suddenly.

Call out a warning to others if you're unsure if they see you.

Know how to swim, but remember swimming is not allowed in Lady Bird Lake.

Wear a life jacket.

Take a boater safety or water rescue class.

Carry a phone and your ID in a waterproof case. If you see someone in trouble, call 911.

If you're training to go fast, consider avoiding peak boat rental times.

Don't go on the lake alone.

Know the weather forecast and be prepared.

Leave headphones at home.

Use lights if you're out after dark.