Guest column: Is boating becoming safer?

Stanley Kott
Marco Island Sail and Power Squadron

We celebrate National Safe Boating each May. This year National Safe Boating week is May 19 through 25.

For the less tropical areas of the U.S., May is the traditional start of the recreational boating season.  Across the country there will be events promoting boating and water safety through awareness and education. Marco Island recognized this recently with a proclamation while members of local boating groups appeared at the council chambers wearing life jackets promoting the Wear It campaign.

While May is National Safe Boating Month, the Marco Island Sail and Power Squadron (MISP) believes every day of every month is Safe Boating Day. The organization offers a variety of educational classes to assist with boating safety.

Happily, all the efforts appear to be working. Boating is becoming safer – although deeper investigation raises a serious concern. In 1997 there were 8,407 boating accidents reported with 821 deaths and 4,555 injuries. In 2016, the last year with full results and with 19 years of increased boating safety awareness and education, the number of boating accidents had dropped to 4463, an almost 50 percent drop. But, the number of deaths was 701, a rate of one death for every 6.3 accidents. In 1997 the rate was one in 10. Injuries were also slightly more likely to result in 2016 accidents when compared to 1997.  So, yes we can celebrate fewer accidents but concern must be raised for the serious results of these fewer accidents.

There are almost 12 million recreational vessels registered in the US with over 90 percent of these vessels mechanically propelled (the others being canoes, kayaks, rowboats, etc). The boats most involved in accidents are powered with between 76 to 150 HP, are of fiberglass construction and are between 16 to 26 feet in length and the majority of these boats are older having been built in 2003 and prior.

Boating accidents are further defined by the activity engaged in at the time of the incident. The very large majority of accidents (3,751) occurred while boaters were engaged in `relaxation’ activities – boating to relax and enjoy the water and nature. Other top activities engaged in before the accident are fishing (709) and towed water sports (416).  These 2016 statistics attribute 73 percent of the 701 deaths to drowning. Most of the deaths occur with open motor boats.

The primary factors contributing to and causing boating accidents are improper lookout, operator inattention, operator inexperience, excessive speed, alcohol use and restricted vision.

The U.S. Coast Guard has simplified the display of information by dividing the contributing categories into five larger categories: the operation of the vessel, loading of passengers and gear, failure of the vessel or vessel equipment, environment (congested waters, hazardous waters, force of wake, weather, etc) and miscellaneous.

One can easily see that the operation of the vessel is the primary cause of most accidents and boating deaths. Machines may become easier and safer but the operators still cause the accidents. 

While nothing can absolutely guarantee a safe boating experience, we know that education and training can greatly improve the skills, knowledge and confidence of boaters. Boaters need to be completely familiar with the boat’s capabilities and its safety equipment.  Boaters must navigate within marked channels and must stay alert when approaching other boats and objects in the water (navigation buoys, marine traps, mooring fields, etc). No matter how much experience it is always good to brush up on the latest boating rules and technology.  And, importantly, the boater needs to keep a close eye on conditions at hand and take action to make sure the crew and the boat get home without accident or injury.

The United States Power Squadron, now becoming known as America’s Boating Club, is an educational, social and service organization with nearly 35,000 members organized into over 350 squadrons across the country.  It is America’s largest non-profit boating organization and has been honoured by three US presidents for its civic contributions. Marco Island Sail & Power Squadron offers a wide array of excellent boating courses taught locally. Additionally we offer free vessel safety checks and enjoy group boating trips, monthly dinner with informational speakers as well as our monthly `Captain’s’ social hour at CJ’s.