A Southcentral Alaska man got swept up in an Alaska State Troopers boating safety initiative last week in an encounter that ended with a $160 citation -- and a lot of laughter.
That's because the craft he and his passenger were testing in the shallow, nearshore waters of Finger Lake wasn't what most people would consider a boat. It was a floating picnic table.
Last week's Matanuska Valley run-in with troopers was a costly, albeit pretty funny, lesson for Michael Gonzalez, the 37-year-old man who built the picnic table boat.
"Do your research before being innovative," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez was testing his creation to see how much weight it would support before sinking, he said, when the troopers showed up and cited him for not having life jackets for himself and his passenger, his brother David. The brothers were enjoying cups of grapefruit juice (no alcohol was involved in the incident, according to Alaska State Troopers) at the table when they were approached. Gonzalez said he was surprised that he was required to have safety gear on the table -- since it was, after all, a table.
But the state of Alaska and the U.S. Coast Guard consider any floating craft in which people are riding to be a boat -- no matter how unique it is.
"If you were paddling around a fish tote, moving and transporting yourself on the water, it would be considered a boat from the Coast Guard's perspective," said Jeff Johnson, Alaska's state boating law administrator.
Any boat is required to carry at least one life jacket for each adult riding aboard, even if the boat is a table on floats. Children under 13 must be wearing a personal flotation device at all times while on boats in Alaska.
From Sunday to Wednesday, the troopers were checking waterways across Alaska for boating safety and alcohol violations. "Operation Dry Water" is an annual affair aimed at lowering the number of boating and drowning fatalities in Alaska, which is among the nation's leaders for both.
"We are not out there to be the bad guys; we just want people to boat safely," said troopers spokesperson Beth Ipsen.
Gonzalez said he will appeal his $160 fine; he says he was only testing the table's seaworthiness before deciding whether to have it registered as a boat. But Gonzalez isn't mad at the trooper who gave him the ticket. Gonzalez said Trooper Jimmie Lindberg was courteous during the encounter, even taking some pictures to show other officers because, well, otherwise "they would have never believed him."
And, Gonzalez said, the ticket could have been even more expensive. The floating picnic table was equipped with a small electric trolling motor -- meaning Gonzalez, as the captain of the table-boat, was also required to have onboard a whistle, a flare and a fire extinguisher. That could have upped Gonzalez's fine by hundreds of dollars.
"He didn't ticket me for everything," Gonzalez said.
The table has since been legalized, complete with an Alaska boat registration number from the Division of Motor Vehicles, inspection sticker and required safety gear. According to Gonzalez, his is now the first picnic table ever licensed in the state of Alaska. It has also been upgraded to carry up to four people and has built-in storage and coolers.
Gonzalez said the encounter has not deterred his nautical notions. He plans to put the picnic-boat back into the water this weekend.
As for why he built a motorized floating picnic table in the first place, Gonzalez, who grew up in Eagle River, said sometimes innovation can take a detour.
"We were going to do a floating sofa and decided a floating picnic table sounded easier," Gonzalez said.
Contact Sean Doogan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By SEAN DOOGAN