Recreational Boating Safety – 2023 Coast Guard Accident Statistics

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla

The Coast Guard has released the Recreational Boating Accident Statistics for 2023. The following tables give you an overview. I ask everyone to look at the tables and ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Is this me?
  2. Am I guilty of operating in this fashion?
  3. Should I change the way I operate my boat?

Two thirds of the earth’s surface is covered by water, yet Americans crashed into each other 1053 times last year, killing 41 people and causing 523 injuries. If that wasn’t bad enough, they ran into fixed objects such as bridges, the dock, and jetties, killing 54 people and injuring 288. Do you think maybe alcohol and unsafe speed had anything to do with the types of accidents above?

How did 44 people die and 90 people suffer serious injury due to flooding or swamping of their boat?

  1. Operating over capacity (too many people on board!)
  2. Operating in seas too heavy for the boat and load
  3. Failing to put the drain plug in
  4. No life jacket in almost every single case

I am surprised that the Grounding category isn’t higher. People in my area (Upper Texas Gulf Coast) ground a lot. Although two thirds of the surface of the earth is covered by water, some of that water is only a foot (or less) deep. The closer you get to shore or the dock the shallower the water becomes. Bays are particularly hazardous as large portions of bays are in the one foot deep or less category. So how were 15 people killed and 206 people seriously injured due to grounding? It’s called ejection. They were thrown from the boat, often at a high rate of speed. Some were then run over by their own boat.

Capsizing means the boat turned over. Capsizing goes along with flooding/swamping. When a certain amount of water fills the boat, it will roll over and capsize. The capsizing category had the highest number of deaths. Why? No life jacket. They drowned. No life jacket in a storage locker has ever saved a life. It only works when worn. Every year I tell the story about the Vessel Safety Check I was doing on a recreational boat. There were no life jackets aboard (automatic failure). I asked the boat owner where his life jackets were. He said he didn’t need one because he was a world class swimmer. I asked him how well he swam while unconscious, as that is how many persons who went overboard ended up. Just a small tap on the head is all it takes. Some people tell me they always put their life jacket on before they get underway. I tell those people about the Chief of Police for Kemah, Texas, who fell overboard while anchored and fishing. He hit his head on the gunwale as he went overboard. He surfaced two days later. No life jacket.

Open Motorboat
Open Motorboat is at the top of the casualty rank just because (1) that is what most people have, and (2) because they go much faster than other boats (except for Personal Watercraft, which run about the same top speeds). Half of the deaths were attributed to Open Motorboats. This includes open bow runabouts, center console fishing boats, and small open cockpit cruisers. When you look at why, the answers are the same as every other year: speed and alcohol, with a smidgen of inexperience.

Personal Watercraft
We had to come up with another name for jet skis because Jet Ski is a trademark name, just like Coke. So we came up with soda for anything other than a Coke or Coca Cola, and personal watercraft for what we would otherwise call a jet ski. When I bought my Yamaha and called it a jet ski, the dealer said no it’s a Wave Runner. Now that we know what we are talking about, we see that in comparison with the other categories that although there were 15 personal watercraft drownings, they were a smaller percentage of the number of deaths than other vessel types. Why? Simple: you MUST wear a life jacket when operating a personal watercraft. How could you drown on one, then? The answer is that not all life jackets are designed to keep an unconscious person’s head above water. The life jacket will tell you in the fine print on the inside exactly how well they will keep you upright in the water and keep your head out of the water. My life jacket will keep my unconscious head out of the water 100% of the time.

Personal watercraft are dangerous because of the way many people operate them; that is, at high speed, making hard and sudden turns, and often too close to another boat when playing the spray the other boat game. The one thing that keeps the injuries and deaths down is that most personal watercraft are designed to carry 2-3 persons max. If you start adding passengers then the casualties go up.

What kinda boat you got? Why, I have a kayak- what could be safer? Well, almost anything as it turns out. Why? No life jacket. How? The kayak hits them in the head as they roll out of or off of the kayak, or the kayak floats away and they do not have a life jacket on. I would say this applies to more kayaks than you think. Oh, most kayakers have a life jacket. When we recover the drowned kayaker’s kayak, we find their life jacket neatly strapped to the kayak right behind the seat.

Pontoon Boat
They are big, slow, and can carry many passengers, so why were there 41 deaths, with 35 of them by drowning? No life jacket. If the top speed of your pontoon boat is 19 mph like mine was, why are the deaths so high? If you hit a solid object or ground in shallow water at 19 mph, there is enough kinetic energy at that speed to fling passengers quite a way off the boat. The water is not enough cushion to save you from injury.

Cabin Motorboat
Cabin motorboats are obviously the safest boat category. They are larger, often slower, and often owned by more experienced boaters. If you are in the cabin when the boat strikes something or grounds, you will not be thrown overboard. The Coast Guard recognizes the relative safety provided by a cabin and allows children under 13, who would normally be required to wear a life jacket when underway, to remove their life jackets when they are within the cabin. So, to what do we attribute the drowning deaths in this category? No life jacket, of course. Relative safety is not total safety.

How to Stay Safe on the Water
This article is only a summary of the types of recreational boating accidents and the types of boats involved. Future articles will delve deeply into the root causes and contributing factors of boating accidents. You can increase the chances of coming home safely by doing these things:

  1. Take a Safe Boating Course
  2. Always wear a properly fitting life jacket
  3. Do not boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  4. Follow the Rules of the Road
  5. Understand the limitations of your type of boat

[BC: Jun-4-2024]

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