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What caused an uptick in boating fatalities?

In 2020, there were 767 boating-related deaths, a 25 percent increase over 2019. We dug into the data to see what caused these deaths and shed some light on ways to prevent them in the future.

Spend enough time on the water and you’ll inadvertently weather a few close calls. Mechanical breakdowns at inopportune times, collisions, bottom bumping, freak storms, pulled anchors ... such accidents, while seemingly avoidable after the fact, happen. The trick is to learn from them. But the sad reality is accidents can lead to injuries, property loss and even death.

In 2020, a new wave of boaters took to the water looking for a safe way to recreate outside in the middle of the pandemic. While the rise in new boaters was great for boat sales, it led to congestion on the water, increased insurance claims, a higher frequency of tow calls—and more accidents.

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Federal regulations mandate that boat operators file an accident report if there’s a death or disappearance, injury that requires more than first aid, more than $1,000 of damage or complete loss of a vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard compiles these accident reports, and the numbers tell an interesting story. In 2020 there were 5,265 recreational boating accidents, involving 3,191 injuries and 767 deaths. The fatality rate equals 6.5 deaths per 100,000 registered boats, a 25% increase from the 2019 fatality rate. Drowning accounted for 75% of the deaths. Of those who drowned, 86% were not wearing life jackets.

The numbers in 2020 buck a downward trend in boating fatalities over the past few years. In 2017 there were 658 deaths, followed by 633 in 2018 and 613 in 2019. To see the number of deaths increase in a year that also saw a mass influx of new boaters makes it easy to point to newbies as the root cause. That’s a pretty safe assumption as 77% of deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive any sort of safety instruction. Another consistent factor was alcohol consumption. In 2020, alcohol use played a role in 115 deaths, by far the highest factor of known cause of death recorded by the Coast Guard.

But an influx of new boaters does not tell the full story. According to statistician Susan Weber, who’s been crunching these numbers for the USCG Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety for more than a decade, there was an anomaly in 2020 that may have skewed the outcome. The largest denominator used to normalize the data is boat registrations. “We saw a huge rise in deaths, but we didn’t see a huge rise in registrations,” she said. “Part of that was the difficulty many boaters had registering their boats during the pandemic.” Several states closed their registration offices for a period or scaled back on hours and staffing. There’s a good chance there were way more boats on the water than the number of boats that were actually registered.

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Weber says human error continues to be the main cause of accidents, with the top five contributing factors being operator inattention, inexperience, improper lookout, speeding and machinery failure. Except for machinery failure, the other causes have been consistent for years. Weber suspects machinery failure may have seen a jump because there were so few new boats available for purchase in 2020, as well as a supply crunch on obtaining new parts. She cites one tragic accident in Louisiana where a buyer showed up with cash, purchased a small fishing boat and went right out on the water. “While underway the vessel suffered a hull failure and started to take on water. All the people on board put on life jackets as the vessel was going down, but the new owner refused to leave the boat,” she said. The owner, who disappeared and was presumed deceased, neglected to survey the boat. Had the boat been inspected, they would’ve noticed there was no bilge pump on board.

As for types of boats, fatalities occur on every kind of vessel, with open boats, personal watercraft and cabin cruisers making up the top three. As the majority of registered boats on the water are less than 25 feet, smaller vessels account for the vast majority of accidents. Almost half of all the boating fatalities in 2020 happened on boats 16 feet or less. Most happened on beautiful days with light winds and calm seas, but again, that’s when the most boats are out on the water.

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While the number of fatalities is alarming, boating is still a safe activity. The National Recreational Boating Safety Program looks at how much time people spend boating, and how they use their boats. Since the program began in 1971, the number and variety of recreational boats has increased dramatically, but the number of reported boating casualties has decreased by more than 50%. In 2018, the last time data was published, recreational boaters spent 10.2 billion hours on the water, and 613 fatalities occurred. Using some back-of-the-napkin math, thats one death per 16,639,477 boating hours.

The boats being built today are much safer and easier to operate than ever, but what these stats reveal is that most boaters are on older boats. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a little education on the rules of the road and quick fixes at sea would go a long way. Veteran operators need to encourage wearing lifejackets, using the kill switch, checking the forecast and having a designated sober operator on board.

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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