Recreational Boating Safety – 2020 Boating Accident Statistics

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Base Galveston Flotilla
The US Coast Guard 2020 Recreational Boating Accident Statistics are out, and the results were just as predicted: a 25% overall increase in deaths, accidents, and injuries. This column will take a look at the summaries of the accident types.

The Base Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the US Coast Guard base on Galveston Island. They aid the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, providing a safety zone, Aids to Navigation verification, cooking in base and station galleys and aboard cutters; and as drone pilots on the Coast Guard Drone Team.

Top Five Accident Types
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a table saves a lot of words too:

  1. “Collision with recreational vessel” means someone ran into another boat.
  2. “Flooding/Swamping” often means someone left the drain plug out, the boat was overloaded, or the boat was operated in too heavy seas for it to handle.
  3. “Collision with fixed object” often means someone ran into the dock.
  4. “Grounding” means the boat ran in water too shallow to float it.
  5. “Falls overboard” often means someone wasn’t properly seated in the boat.

Life Jacket Use
If you end up in the water without a life jacket, you will most likely die. It is that simple. The safest life jacket is one that turns your head upwards. That is the one that will save you if you are knocked unconscious, and this happens in many cases. If you are knocked unconscious when you hit the water and you are not wearing a life jacket, your chance of survival is zero. Only Aquaman can breathe underwater. When you look at the table below you will see that there were 74 deaths by drowning even though a life jacket was worn. This illustrates why it is important to wear a properly fitting life jacket that returns your head to an upright position and holds your head above water. Not just any life jacket will do. You need one that is right for the type of water that fits you well.

  1. Drowning happens because people end up in the water; 86% of those who drowned did so because they weren’t wearing a life jacket.
  2. Trauma is force to the body that causes injury or death. Trauma often happens when you get run over by your own boat or by another boat. The statistics show that you have a much higher chance of surviving trauma if you are wearing a life jacket. A life jacket enhances your chances of being found in time to save you from your injuries.
  3. Cardiac arrest often happens when you end up in the water if you are not in decent physical shape. One of the cardiac arrest deaths noted in the statistics was a local fisherman. The victim tried to swim to shore rather than stay with the capsized boat. The other passengers who remained with the boat were saved.
  4. Hypothermia is exposure to water colder than 86 degrees for a period long enough to cause organ failure. That can be 48 hours as in one local case, or it could be minutes if the water is below 60 degrees. While it may look like you have a better chance of survival if you don’t wear a life jacket, the reality is you die from drowning before your organs fail if you aren’t wearing a life jacket.
  5. Carbon monoxide is always present near a running gasoline engine. It floats on the surface of the water, so never swim near a boat that has its engine running.

Contributing Factors
There are several things that boaters do that enhance their chances of dying on the water. Accidents never have just one cause. There are always contributing factors. Without the contributing factors the accident probably would not have happened. If we were to try to place the contributing factors into similar groups, I would choose the ignorance group and the negligence group. The ignorance group consists of factors that you should know about but you haven’t taken the time to take a boater safety course. The negligence group contains the same factors (except for alcohol use, which is always negligence), but in this case the boat operator knows what he should know but chooses to ignore the requirements anyway. Ignorance of the Rules of the Road is high up on the list of contributing factors. You can’t see it on the list below? It is listed as “Navigation Rules Violation.” If you are in an accident with your car, there is a possibility that you could be held blameless for the accident; that is, it was 100% the other driver’s fault. Well, it doesn’t work that way on the water. Both parties share the blame. Always. You have an absolute duty to avoid a collision on the water.

  1. Operator inattention is still at the top of the list of contributing factors of accidents. New boaters don’t understand the implications of having a vessel with no brakes. If you have two boats approaching each other at 30 mph, the closing speed is 88 feet per second. Two boats that are a quarter mile away from each other running 30 mph are 15 seconds from collision. If you think that 500 feet is enough distance to keep behind a boat traveling in the same direction as your boat, you are 11 seconds from ramming that boat if you are moving 30 mph and the boat ahead suddenly stops. Try this experiment with a stopwatch: 1) Start the stopwatch; 2) turn around in your chair; 3) say “Rebecca, get back in your seat and leave your brother alone!”; 4) turn back around in your seat; 5) stop your stopwatch. So, how fast were you going when you rammed the boat ahead of you?
  2. Operator inexperience moved up from #3 from last year. There is evidence that boating activity rose significantly during the pandemic, and that boat purchases by new (inexperienced) boaters significantly rose. Many of those boaters failed to take the required (by their age) boater safety course.
  3. Improper lookout was #2 last year. Even if you have the “right of way” under the Rules of the Road, you are still responsible for avoiding a collision. Having a proper lookout (all directions covered) is required at all times.
  4. Excessive speed was #4 last year also. Going fast on a boat is just so much fun. To borrow from Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men”: “The Speed? You can’t handle the speed!” There are boats out there with 1,000 hp engines on them. I belong to a large boating club whose members all have boats made by the same manufacturer and three fourths of the posts on the group website are questions asking how to make their boat go faster. When you are running WOT (wide open throttle) and trimmed up all the way you just think you have control of your boat.
  5. Machinery failure is often caused by lack of maintenance or overtaxing the equipment. When is the last time you lubricated your steering arm?
  6. Navigation rules violation means failing to follow the Rules of the Road. Whenever I do a Vessel Safety Check I ask the owner if they know the Rules of the Road. My most common response is “Yeah, I think so.” No, they don’t. In our area we have all sorts of vessels from tiny skiffs all the way up to super tankers and container vessels. There is a pecking order that tells who has the right of way. Shame on you if you don’t know it. No, sailing vessels do NOT always have the right of way. What is a vessel flying the ball-diamond-ball day shape trying to tell you? (No, it isn’t a pirate ship.)
  7. Alcohol use slipped from #5 position to #7 position as a contributing factor. Understand that even so there were more alcohol related deaths in 2020 than in 2019. No, we didn’t get better; we just got worse in the categories higher up the list than alcohol use.
  8. Weather is #8 on the contributing factor list. We had a lot of storms out there in the Gulf of Mexico this past year. For $100 you can have a radio that talks to the Coast Guard and also gives you up to date weather information.
  9. Hazardous waters- they are located on your GPS and fishing maps. Why do boat operators think they have to anchor five feet off the jetty? Sometimes the weather creates hazardous waters. A super low tide can create hazards just below the water’s surface. Look for shoaling in areas not noted on charts whenever there is a super low tide. Shoaling is the effect by which surface waves entering shallower water change in wave height. In shallow water non-breaking waves will increase in wave height as the wave packet enters shallower water. Shoaling is a visual effect, so if you decide to run your boat at night you will lose this effect as a warning. Below is a picture I took of shoaling above an oyster reef.
  10. Force of wake has flipped many a boat. You are responsible for all accidents and damages that are caused by your wake. Observe all No Wake zones.

I already knew that the statistics for 2020 boating accidents were going to be much higher than 2019. We could feel it based on what we were seeing out there on the water. Even people with no boating knowledge have related stories about near collisions they witnessed on their 13-minute ride across the ship channel on the Galveston ferry. The predicters were right. Not only were there more accidents by number and by percent compared to other years, but the numbers were 25 percent higher in almost every category. That is a historic increase.
Ball-Diamond-Ball Day Shape Answer
A vessel flying the ball-diamond-ball day shape is a vessel restricted in ability to maneuver (RAM). If you do not stay out of its way then it will ram you.

RAM Day Shape and Night Colors

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!


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