Recreational Boating Safety – Death on the Water-Beating the Odds

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Base Galveston Flotilla
In 2021 the Coast Guard counted 4,439 accidents that involved 658 deaths, 2,641 injuries, and about $67.5 million dollars of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents. The 2021 Recreational Boating Statistics is an 83-page compilation of facts and figures related to recreational boating accidents that resulted in deaths, injuries, and property damage. The statistics categorize the different accidents into several broad categories, and then further break those categories down into subcategories. The publication only lists the various causes of accidents; it does not say how to prevent accidents. In this follow-up to last week’s analysis of the statistics I will list some methods to avoid being included in next year’s statistics.

The Broad Accident Cause Categories
This is what I call the first level of analysis: grouping causes into categories that can be addressed as a whole. The accident categories have sub-categories that share a common denominator and can similarly be addressed to reduce their negative impact on safe boating. Here are the categories and the number of deaths related to each. I don’t address the injuries and property damages in each category, as preventing the accident will eliminate those elements also.

Category 1: Operation of the Vessel (266 deaths attributed)
This category concerns the underway aspects of accidents and points directly at the boat operator as the person responsible for any boat accident. The boat operator is the captain of the boat and is the person held responsible for the operation of the boat. As the captain, the boat operator must ensure that his passengers are informed of their duties and responsibilities, and that the passengers obey the captain’s commands. Here are the sub-categories and their related deaths, as well as what must be done to reduce the accidents involved with those sub-categories.

1. Alcohol Use (86 deaths)
Drinking and operating any type of equipment, especially a vessel in which other people ride, is the height of irresponsibility. It’s bad enough to get yourself killed but taking out friends and family in a boat where alcohol is used, especially by the driver, is inexcusable. The answer is simple: do not operate under the influence of alcohol (or drugs either). A better rule is to prohibit alcohol altogether on your boat, as an inebriated passenger can also put others at risk if they imbalance the boat or distract the operator.

2. Operator Inexperience (65 deaths)
Operator inexperience means the operator was not familiar with operating a boat, or not familiar with operating that particular boat, or not familiar with operating a boat in a particular area. There are roads all over our waters; we call them channels. If you operate outside a channel, you run the risk of running aground and ejecting all of your passengers, possibly running over them with the boat in the process. Although I am quite familiar with my boat’s operating characteristics, I have limited experience on larger and more powerful boats. That inexperience on larger and more powerful boats can make me dangerous at the helm if I don’t operate cautiously until I get a feel for the boat. I know Galveston East and West Bays enough to operate safely within all the channels; I know the Clear Lake Area fairly well. But when I go north of Clear Lake or South of the Galveston Jetties, I am running in waters new to me, and a great deal of caution is required to operate in unfamiliar waters. The best way to learn a new area is to ride with someone experienced in the area who points out the hazards of the area. Studying area charts is another way to familiarize yourself with new waters.

3. Operator Inattention (41 deaths)
Operator inexperience often goes hand in hand with operator inattention. A boater operating in an area new to them may find themselves glued to the GPS. While trying to look out for hazards on the screen they may miss an obstruction in the water straight ahead. You can over-rely on your electronics to the point where you miss the visual clues of danger ahead. On the water dangers can come at you from any direction, and you must be aware of any possible danger of collision no matter from which direction it comes. You must avoid distractions, which could come from passengers moving about while you are underway or even something that is happening in another boat. A ten-second distraction could cause you to collide with another boat. Unlike Interstate 10, boat operators often stop unexpectedly or make changes in direction that put them on a collision course with you. If you get distracted, it is easy to find yourself at risk for collision.

4. Excessive Speed (23 deaths)
Excessive speed means you were going too fast to be able to control the boat, you were going too fast for the sea state, or you were going too fast due to vessel traffic nearby. My boat will run a little faster than 50 mph, but to get to that speed I have to trim the bow up to a point that I am riding on a very small portion of the hull. When I am running wide open throttle like that, a patch of rough water could cause me to spin out of control. Just because a boat will run a certain speed doesn’t mean you should always operate at that speed. You must operate at a speed that is safe for the conditions in which you are operating. Take into account your knowledge of the area (including where the shallow water is), the amount of boat traffic, and the sea state, and operate at a safe speed. Except where speed is restricted by regulation or the waterway is marked by a “No Wake” or “Slow Speed” aid, you must judge “safe speed” for yourself. You must take into account the following:

  • Visibility
  • Vessel traffic
  • Your boat’s ability to maneuver
  • Background lighting at night
  • Draft in relation to depth of water
  • Weather Conditions (including wind, sea, current and proximity to hazards)

5. Improper Lookout (18 deaths)
When you are driving on a road, your attention lies with judging oncoming traffic if you are on a two-lane road, with judging the speed of a car ahead of you, and if you are a cautious driver, with judging the speed and distance of the car behind you. It is different on a boat because the danger of collision can come from any direction. Unless you are the only person in the boat, you must designate at least one passenger to serve as a lookout to warn you of dangers of collision. Things happen fast on the water, and a good lookout who understands the job can warn you in time to avoid a collision no matter from what direction the danger comes. Here is the wording of the Post a Lookout Rule (Rule 5):

Designate someone to watch for dangers that may come from any direction: Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.

6. Navigation Rules Violation (18 deaths)
One of the best ways to learn the navigation rules (aka the Rules of the Road) is to take a Recreational Safe Boating course. Boaters born after August 31, 1993, are required to have taken a safe boater course and have proof of having taken that course with them while operating a motorized boat over 15 hp or a sailboat over 14 feet in length. The sad fact is too many people are out there operating without the required boating safety course.

I wish the statistics had addressed which rules were violated, but as an experienced Recreational Boating Safety Specialist, I have a pretty good idea of which rules were violated thus causing a boating accident. Rule 5 (Post a Lookout) and Rule 6 (Safe Speed) have been discussed above. The other rules most likely to be the cause of a fatal accident are discussed below.

Rule 8: Actions to Avoid a Collision
Below are excerpts from the first five sections of Rule 8:

(a) Any action taken shall be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship.

(b) Any alteration of course and/or speed to avoid collision shall be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel observing visually or by radar; a succession of small alterations of course and/or speed should be avoided.

(c) If there is sufficient sea room, alteration of course alone may be the most effective action to avoid a close-quarters situation provided that it is made in good time, is substantial and does not result in another close-quarters situation.

(d) Action taken to avoid collision with another vessel shall be such as to result in passing at a safe distance. The effectiveness of the action shall be carefully checked until the other vessel is finally past and clear.

(e) If necessary to avoid collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel shall slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing her means of propulsion.

Overtaking (Rule 13)
There are three important considerations when overtaking. The first consideration is to understand which vessel has the right of way. It is simple. Any vessel overtaking (passing) any other vessel shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken. The nautical term for the overtaking vessel is “Give-way Vessel.” The term for the vessel being overtaken is the “Stand-on Vessel.” Both terms are self-explanatory. As the give-way vessel, you must give way (take actions necessary to avoid a collision), while as the stand-on vessel it is your job to maintain a constant speed and heading; that is, you stand on a steady course. Before changing course, you should make sure you are not being passed by another vessel. Many collisions occur when what should have been the stand-on vessel in a passing situation suddenly makes a turn either to port or starboard.

The second consideration is to signal to the other vessel your intent to overtake, and for the vessel being overtaken to signal that they understand. To pass on the port (left) side of the stand-on vessel, the give-way vessel first gives two one-second blasts of the horn, and the stand-on vessel acknowledges by giving two short blasts. Passing on the port side is the normal rule when there is enough room to do so. Sometimes the give-way vessel may desire to pass on the starboard (right side). In that case, the signal is one short blast.

The third consideration is executing the pass safely. If either boat operator feels that there is a risk of collision, then the horn signal to be given is five short, quick blasts of the horn. The pass should be executed only when it is safe to do so; that is, there is room to pass, and the give-way vessel’s wake will not cause damage and proximity to the stand-on vessel does not pose a risk of collision. It’s just like passing a car on a two-lane highway.

Passing Head-On (Rule 14)
Unless otherwise agreed, when two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve a risk of collision, each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other. In other words, keep right. Yes, it is that simple, but we saw several boats zigzag as they approached each other, neither operator seeming to know what to do. The horn signal is one short blast. If there is any doubt about what the other vessel intends to do, the rules require you to take action to avoid a collision. In addition, sound the distress signal (5 short blasts).

Crossing Situations (Rule 15)
When two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve a risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel. This is just like coming up to a 4-way stop on a highway, but there are no stop signs or yield signs. You just have to remember the rule: the vessel on your right has the right-of-way.

Category 2: Loading of Passengers or Gear (55 deaths)
Loading of passengers isn’t just about getting passengers on board; it also concerns where they end up after they get aboard. There are three sub-categories in this category:

1. People on Gunwale, Bow, or Transom (21 deaths)
We see people riding the bow with their feet dangling off the front all the time. These are the people who will get thrown from the boat and then be run over by the boat, with the propeller taking an arm, leg, or head off in the process. At 30 mph a boat is traveling 44 feet per second. On the average recreational boat, the boat will hit a wave, toss the person off the bow, and decapitate them in less than a full second. Sitting on the gunwale may seem innocent enough, but that same wave often ends up with the person hitting their head on the side of the boat as they go over, and if they are not wearing a life jacket you generally have to wait 48 hours for their body to float to the surface.

2. Improper Loading (21 deaths)
The key concept here is the boat must be loaded so that it is balanced on each side and from front to back. An improperly loaded boat is difficult to control, and it is affected by waves and wakes a lot more than a balanced boat. Many boats have a recommended loading chart somewhere in the boat. A boat with everyone at the back will be very difficult to get up on plane, and a boat with everyone at the bow will be in danger of pitch poling over if it hits a big wave or wake. In any case, people end up in the water and often are run over by the boat.

The same concept goes when loading gear, in particular those 750-quart coolers loaded with 1200 pounds of ice. They don’t have to be that big to affect boat handling if they are not placed to balance the boat. Heavy gear that is not properly secured can quickly become a danger also.

3. Overloading (12 deaths)
Free board, not to be confused with the great song Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd, is the distance from the waterline to the point where water can enter the boat. Boats with very low free board are in danger of being swamped and capsizing. How do you get into such a situation? Overloading. Most recreational boats have a capacity plate that tells you how much weight or how many passengers you can safely load. If you look at a standard capacity plate and do the math, the average person mentioned on that capacity plate weighs 140 pounds. Not only are overloaded boats easy to swamp, but they are also much more difficult to control.

Category 3: Environment (124 deaths)
This is what I call the Gilligan’s Island category: “Five passengers set sail that day for a three-hour tour. A Three-hour tour.” By all records the Skipper and Gilligan were very experienced sailors, but when things go bad environmentally, the chances for a bad outcome are greatly enhanced. There are five sub-categories:

1. Hazardous Waters (68 deaths)
The definition of hazardous waters is rapid tidal flows and/or currents resulting in hazardous conditions in which to operate a boat. Some areas of the country have very large tidal flows that can expose dangerous reefs or other obstructions that would normally be well below the surface. In my area we have several shoals that can rip the bottom out of a boat if you hit them at speed. If you are operating in an area new to you, you should consult the charts and someone who routinely operates in those waters to learn the hidden dangers.

2. Weather (30 deaths)
“The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed, if not for the courage of the fearless crew the Minnow would be lost.” Well, heck- it was lost! A good captain keeps an eye to the sky, but also has a marine VHF radio with weather channels on it, and he consults the weather before considering going out. There are several smart phone weather apps out there for boaters. The key is to look at the forecast for the area in which you will be operating and to continuously watch the sky for changes. You should have an alternate port you can go to if you are cut off from your departure dock. Make sure you are scanning the weather channels on your marine radio. Don’t tell me you don’t have one.

3. Force of Wave/Wake (16 deaths)
Boat operators are responsible for any damages caused by their wakes. Rule 6 (Safe Speed) requires you to observe all No Wake zones. That said, when you operate in close proximity to large ocean-going vessels, you should know that they can produce large and powerful wakes when they transit the ship channel. Recreational boaters may certainly cross the ship channel, but they should not operate within the ship channel, instead keeping to the barge and tug lanes on either side of the deep channel used by ships. This sub-category also includes operating in heavy seas. Know the sea state limits for both you and your boat.

4. Dam/Lock (7 deaths)
Oh, I wish the statistics went into details. Locks and dams are found on rivers rather than the open sea, although I have operated near dams. Hydroelectric dams produce a very strong current. Every hydroelectric dam I have seen has had proximity warning signs. Disregard those signs and you could easily become one of next year’s statistics. Saltwater barriers are a type of dam, and if you don’t know where they are you could find yourself going over the barrier with a 20-foot drop to the rocks below. You have to know where the hazards are and stay clear of them.

5. Missing/Inadequate Navigation Aid (3 deaths)
How many of you recreational boaters have a copy of the US Coast Guard Light List for the area in which you will operate? Part of being an experienced boater is knowing the Aids to Navigation System. The Light List is published in seven volumes and contains lights and other aids to navigation used for general navigation that are maintained by or under the authority of the US Coast Guard and located in the waters surrounding the United States and its territories. Each volume corresponds to a different regional area and contains more complete information on each aid to navigation than can be conveniently shown on charts. Charts show you where aids to navigation are supposed to be located. The Coast Guard puts out a weekly Corrected USCG Light List, and that weekly report can be sent to your email address. The important thing about this corrected list is it shows the lights or daybeacons that have been reported missing or off location. If you are going to navigate a particular waterway, you should consult this list so that you can be apprised of missing or off location aids to navigation. You don’t want to end up on the rocks if you miss your turn.

Category 4: Failure of Boat or Boat Equipment (21 deaths)
There are three sub-categories. This is the smallest category of causes of recreational boating accidents, but most of the deaths and injuries could have been prevented if the boat had been properly maintained and inspected. Here are the sub-categories:

1. Machinery Failure (12 deaths)
Machinery failure is a defect and/or failure in the machinery or material, design or construction, or components installed by the manufacturer involved in the mechanical propulsion of the boat (engine, transmission, fuel system, electric system, and steering system. The statistics show that steering failure resulted in 5 deaths, engine failure resulted in 5 deaths, and throttle failure resulted in 1 death (one death for unknown mechanical failure). This is all about maintenance and inspection. Outboard motors have steering rods and pins that need to be periodically lubricated and inspected for wear. Engines have routine maintenance schedules. If you try to turn just before hitting an obstruction and your steering fails, you could become one of next year’s statistics.

2. Equipment Failure (5 deaths)
Equipment failure applies to equipment other than that listed above. The statistics say that 3 deaths were attributed to a seat breaking loose, and one death was due to a sail dismasting (the sail came off the mast). Again, if your equipment is periodically inspected and repaired, you won’t become a statistic. Boats can take a beating in rough water, and things have a way of becoming loose. There are two opportune times to inspect and repair: when you prepare your boat for winter storage and when you bring your boat out of winter storage. You can find excellent checklists online to help you with your inspection. If you have a boat manual, then certainly it has a maintenance schedule.

3. Hull Failure (4 deaths)
Hull failure is a defect or failure of the structural body of a vessel. If your boat is a welded aluminum boat, your most likely failure points are at the welds. A defect can be hidden by paint, so don’t just put a good eye on your welds; run your hand over the welds. Hull failure can be due to unintentional grounding as well. Your boat may not leak, but you may have created a weak spot on the hull that results in complete failure when operating it at some time in the future. Boats that have been grounded should be thoroughly inspected for damage.

By knowing the causes of boating accidents, you can adjust the operation of your own boat so that you reduce your chances to become an accident statistic. The more safely you operate, the less likely you are to be mentioned in next year’s statistics.

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 in my area, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!


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2 Responses to “Recreational Boating Safety – Death on the Water-Beating the Odds”

  1. Max says:

    Thanks for sharing this, very helpful!

  2. stephen salvesen says:

    I know I may not be that good of a fisherman but, I’ve had a hard time catching as much since the filled in Rollover Pass. My son in law—who is a good fisherman—thinks so as well. Any truth to this?

    stephen salvesen

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