Boating safety: Don’t be a statistic

As you head for the lake, river or beach this Labor Day weekend, you may be planning to enjoy cruising, fishing or watersports from a boat.  Before you head out, take time to think through boating safety — it can make the difference between a perfect day on the water and an injury.

Safety by Numbers

Is boating safety really a big issue?

Yes! In 2019, the Coast Guard counted 4,168 accidents, which caused 613 deaths, 2,559 injuries and about $55 million dollars of damage to property. That’s 5.2 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. The most frequent cause of death was drowning, accounting for almost 80% of fatalities. Of those, 86% were not wearing a life jacket. Eight out of 10 boaters who drowned were in small vessels, usually 21 feet or less in length.

Boater at the helm

Accident causes

The leading factor causing boating accidents is alcohol. Keep in mind that boating while intoxicated is a federal offense and can incur fines and criminal penalties.

The other most common factors were:

  • Operator inattention,
  • Improper lookout,
  • Operator inexperience, and
  • Excessive speed

There were 171 accidents in which at least one person was struck by a propeller. These accidents resulted in 35 deaths and 155 injuries. Other accidents occurred when one boat collided with another or a fixed object, grounding, swamping or falling overboard.

Accident Prevention

Statistics paint a clear picture of the safety issues affecting recreational boaters. Don’t be a statistic! If you and your family plan to go boating, remember the following safety tips:

  • Get training. Proper boating instruction can make a significant difference in reducing accidents and injuries. Unfortunately, 70% of deaths in 2019 occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction. In Virginia, you are required to have a boating safety education course completion card on board when operating a personal water craft or motorboat with a 10 hp or greater motor.
  • Wear a life jacket. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that life jackets could have saved the lives of more than 80% of boating fatality victims. Lifejackets and safety harnesses should be provided for everyone on board. These devices can ensure your survival, but only if they are actually worn. Additionally, store sets of warm and protective clothing for everyone on board.
  • Ask for a vessel safety check. Both the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the United States Power Squadrons perform free Vessel Safety Checks. There is no charge, and no consequences if you don’t pass.
  • Beware of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is often caused by gasoline-powered engines on boats. This silent killer can also be emitted by a stove, grill, hot water heater or generator.
  • Know how to get help. Make sure you have a VHF radio. You can call the Coast Guard using Channel 16 on your VHF radio – this may also alert other vessels in the area that may be able to provide assistance. To call for assistance, say “Mayday” three times. Give the name of your boat and then say “Mayday” again. State the nature of the distress, your location, how many people are on board, assistance needed and any other crucial information. Conclude with “Over.
  • Pack for emergencies. Be sure your boat has a fog horn, a spare can of fuel, a First-Aid Kit, a fire extinguisher, flashlight and distress flares. An on-board GPS can be invaluable for providing position information if you ever need assistance.
  • Be aware. Always be aware of your surroundings. Drink responsibly – drinking impairs your judgment. Be careful if you smoke, as fires at sea are dangerous. Never use a lighter or match when fueling, and if you smell gas fumes, stop your engine immediately.
  • Keep an eye on the weather. If weather conditions appear to be deteriorating, do not press on. If there is any doubt regarding your safety, call for help before it is too late.

Stay safe on the water this Labor Day! Want more information on safety and training? Check out the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators