Door County’s Harbor of Refuge Confusion

Over the last three years, I’ve been to dozens (if not scores) of meetings at which Door County municipalities discussed new marina and harbor of refuge (HOR) proposals. At many such meetings, an engineer or marina proponent pleaded with the board and audience about the need for a Harbor of Refuge to secure the safety of boaters at some point.

Usually, they’ve told the crowd that the DNR, or the state, or the Army Corps of Engineers has a program pushing to build a HOR every 20 miles. Sometimes, this number drops to 10.

Eventually, I began to question the authenticity of the argument. Are boaters at great risk on our waters? Are accidents increasing? Are storms stealing lives as vessels scramble desperately to find safe harbor? This is the impression one can get from these HOR arguments, so I checked into it.

Turns out there are very few deaths and accidents caused primarily by weather on our waters. The more salient cause? Boater error. The DNR says 79 percent of captains involved in accidents on Lake Michigan waters never took a boating safety course. Check the DNR’s list of fatalities in area waters, and you’ll find drunkenness to to be a more common theme than weather.

As for the reports calling for safe harbors every 10 or 20 miles? Well, the DNR’s Wisconsin Waterways Commission tells me they’ve never authored any such report, but they directed me to the Army Corps of Engineers. It rang no bells in their office, so they sent me to the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard only referenced guidelines for commercial vessels operating in winter, but said they don’t have anything that applies to recreational boating.

Each of these agencies said it has a preference for more safe harbors, of course, but no mandate. None of their reps seemed to think there was any scourge of weather-related accidents on Lake Michigan waters.

Does this mean we shouldn’t build new marinas? No. Does it mean safe harbors aren’t a good thing? No.

What it means is we should not be led to believe that more Harbors of Refuge are needed because there are major weather-related safety issues on our waters. If we want to reduce deaths and accidents, the statistics say we need better boater education and fewer drunk captains, something safe harbors won’t fix.