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Stay Safe on Crowded Waters

The preliminary numbers are in, and they’re alarming.

Boating deaths surged nearly 25 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, likely the highest number of U.S. boating fatalities in more than two decades. That should give all of us pause as boating season is here.

A crowd of boaters gather at a sandbar near Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.
A crowd of boaters gather at a sandbar near Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. Tamara Melaniy/Unsplash

The reason for the uptick is simple: The Covid-19 pandemic fueled a massive increase in boating activity last year. The peak came during the summer months, when people who had been under pandemic-related lockdowns since March took to the water in record numbers.

“All indications are that the coming boating season will be just as crowded as the last, if not even more so.”

That surge—and the attendant increase in accidents—came after just three months of pandemic restrictions. Now the lockdown clock stands at 15 months, and all indications are that the coming boating season will be just as crowded as the last, if not even more so.

The percentage of new boats sold to first-time buyers surged to 34 percent in 2020, while boating education plummeted, said Verne Gifford, Chief of the Coast Guard’s Boating Division in a May 17 presentation to the International Boating & Water Safety Summit. Hands-on boating courses and in-person instruction were almost completely unavailable during the peak months of the pandemic. Vessel safety checks fell by 72 percent. All these factors contributed to the dramatic increase in boating-related fatalities, Gifford said in a virtual keynote that included an early readout of the U.S. Coast Guard’s annual Recreational Boating Statistics data. The final report will be published in June.

Gifford stressed that the increased number of fatalities reflect an increase in exposure. In other words, boating didn’t become measurably more dangerous from one year to the next. Statistically, boating is still safer than driving, or even walking on the side of the road. More boating accidents took place in 2020 simply because so many more people were boating. While restaurants and malls stood empty, boaters say that every weekend on America’s waterways last summer looked like the Fourth of July.

Family fishing from Polar Kraft boat
Consider dropping an anchor away from the crowds to enjoy some quiet family time. PolarKraft/WSF

With the Memorial Day weekend right around the corner, record numbers of boaters will again shake off the pandemic blues on America’s waterways. Here are seven things you can do to stay safe on crowded waters this season.

#1 – Wear Your Life Jacket

Seventy nine percent of deaths of boating deaths last year were drownings, and 86 percent of drowning victims were not wearing life jackets—an alarming statistic that has remained remarkably consistent for more than a decade. The most effective way to keep yourself and your loved ones safe is for everyone to wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket at all times when they’re on the water.

#2 – Don’t Drink and Boat

In addition to affecting the operator’s coordination and judgment, alcohol also impairs the ability of passengers to respond in an emergency. Keep in mind that sun, wind, waves and a boat’s motion in the water can accentuate the effect of alcohol, which means that drink-for-drink, a boat operator may become impaired more quickly than someone driving a car. According to U.S. Coast Guard reports, alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents; where the primary cause was known, it was listed as the leading factor in 23 percent of deaths.

#3 – Engage the Engine Cut-off Switch

Using a safety lanyard, formally called an engine cut-off switch (ECOS), has always been a good idea to avoid runaway boats and prop injuries. As of April this year, it’s also required by federal law for most vessels under 26 feet and all personal watercraft.

#4 – Take a Course

In-person boating classes are back on, and taking an online course has never been easier. If you haven’t completed a boating course (or if it’s been awhile since you did), now’s the time. Many live, virtual and hybrid boating safety education classes are available through the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, America’s Boating Club and private boating schools.

#5 – File a Float Plan

Before any boating excursion, make sure to share your float plan with friends, family or your local marina. This should include the names of all aboard with contact information including cell phone numbers, your planned itinerary and when you expect to return. That way searchers will know when and where to begin a search if you don’t return as scheduled.

#6 – Watch the Weather

Plan your boating activity according to weather forecasts and conditions. Check the weather in advance and monitor it continuously via radio, mobile weather apps and your own eyes. Stay vigilant for changing tides, currents, winds and other signs of inclement weather. Should you be on a boat when Mother Nature unleashes her fury, seek shelter as soon as possible and notify your shore contact of any changing plans.

Heavy boat traffic in waterway
Take care in constricted waterways and heavy boat traffic. Jens Peter Olesen/Unsplash

#7 – Avoid the Crowds

Boating in a crowd brings with it a host of challenges and potential hazards—something to keep in mind this year, with boating participation expected at record levels. If boat traffic is at holiday weekend levels all summer, just imagine what Memorial Day and the Fourth of July are going to look like. The best advice for days like that is to pay attention. You’d be surprised how many boating accidents come down to operator distraction or inattention. Brush up on the Rules of the Road, and keep your eyes peeled in crowded waterways. Better yet, consider avoiding them altogether on crowded holiday weekends and choose a less congested venue where you can relax. Because after 15 months of pandemic lockdown, you don’t need the stress.

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons®, or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.