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Can Safe Boating Week co-exist with one million registered boats?

Boat Crash in North FloridaFWC.JPG
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
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Authorities investigate a crash between a sailboat and a power boat in waters off the Florida Panhandle

There are more boats on Florida waters, more inexperienced captains, and more people living in the state than ever before. Add to that mix new boat owners, most without enough education and training, and the results are proving deadly.

“Reminding people to be safe and slow down is our top priority,” said Rob Beaton, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s boating and waterways section leader. “Nothing can ruin an enjoyable and memorable experience on the water faster than a boating accident.”

Beaton said the FWC encourages boaters to always wear life jackets, maintain 360-degree awareness – also known as “keeping your head on a swivel,” and know the limits of their own abilities.

Coast Guard records show that drowning was the cause of death in four out of every five recreational boating fatalities in 2020, and that 86% of those who drowned were not wearing life jackets.

Conversely, captains who take boating education courses where they are taught to require everyone on the vessel wear a life jacket, are involved in less than 20% of boating accidents.

National Safe Boating Week runs from May 21-27, which provides a chance for marine authorities to spread the safe boating message every year.

It is a particularly important mission this year, since for the first time in Florida, recreational boating registrations topped one million vessels, which is more than any other state.

In 2021, there were 1.01 million recreational boats in Florida. Three years earlier, there were 950,000. A flip side to all of those new boats is they are traveling about in the same amount of space.

Florida had 836 boating accidents in 2020, which is 113 more accidents than in 2019. A total of 79 people lost their lives last year in boating accidents, 14 more than the previous year.

In a 2020 report, the U.S. Coast Guard found that nearly seven more people died in boating accidents for every 100,000 additional recreational vessels registered throughout the country. And the seven deaths per 100,000 boats was up from about five per the same amount in 2019.

More than half of the boating accidents in Florida last year were collisions, and nearly all happened simply because the captain was not paying attention, or was under the influence.

“All too often, preventable tragedies happen because individuals choose to operate a boat while distracted or impaired,” Beaton said. “FWC law enforcement officers will be doing their part to ensure the safety of Florida’s recreational boaters.”

To report people who are boating dangerously, call 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text the information to Tip@MyFWC.com

A common mistake new boaters make is thinking that because they safely drive a car or truck on land, captaining a boat will be just as easy.

However, cars have brakes. Boats don’t. Vehicles on land turn differently than boats on the water. The forces exerted on the human body in a boat – up-and-down, side-to-side, front-to-back -- compare better to being in an airplane than riding in a car. Plus, boats don’t have doors and seatbelts to keep people from falling out.

Lee County is third among Florida’s 67 counties in the number of registered recreational boaters and fourth in boating accidents. Seven people were killed last year. Most often the crash happened because one boat, with a distracted or impaired captain, ran into another vessel.

Monroe County ranks second in registered boats with 27 boating crashes, including two fatal collisions, and $8 million in property damage last year, second only to Miami-Dade County with 95 crashes, seven deaths and $90,000 in damages.

Collier County ranks eighth in the number of boats, with 28 crashes and no deaths. Sarasota and Charlotte counties ranks 12th and 28th, respectively, in registered pleasure craft with no fatalities in either county last year.

Boat in Tree     FWC.JPG
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
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A 29-foot motorboat was travelling south through in Monroe County when the captain swerved to avoid a head-on collision with another boat, resulting in the vessel crashing into the mangroves along the shoreline

The 2020 Coast Guard report found, among recreational boaters nationally compared to the previous year, accidents increased 26%, deaths increased 25%, and the number of injuries increased 25%.

Scott Croft, vice president of public affairs for Boat Owners Association of the United States said keeping a boat in shape, both mechanically and filled with the required safety gear, is another key to a safe, relaxed day on the water.

BoatUS is an insurance company for its association of recreational and commercial boaters. BoatUS also operates TowBoatUS, which is a network of more than 600 assist vessels owned by about 300 independent owners who license the TowBoatUS name.

Croft said in Florida, TowBoatUS operators report mechanical breakdowns are the main reason they are called to help. Following that is running aground, electrical failures and lack of gas, and overheated engines.

He said he makes sure his safety gear is in shape by bringing his boat to a safety inspection often held on the water by the Coast Guard Auxiliary or United States Power Squadron.

“They have no authority to write a ticket or order you to take your boat out of the water immediately. It’s really a great program and focuses on education, not penalties,” Croft said. “What I have found – and in my own experience – is that if I fail, I take the written report and take action to comply with whatever part of the inspection failed.”

Yvonne Pertz is communications director for the National Safe Boating Council, a nonprofit dedicated to safe boating.

“Have fun on the water, make memories with your family and friends – all while boating responsibly,” Pentz said. “Boat like a pro and make sure you’re prepared. Remember, the best life jacket is the one you will wear.”

The National Safe Boating Council recommends these tips for boaters:

  • Take a boating safety course. Gain valuable knowledge and on-water experience in a boating safety course with many options for novice to experienced boaters.
  • Check equipment. Schedule a free vessel safety check with local Coast Guard Auxiliary to make sure all essential equipment is present, working, and in good condition.
  • Always let someone on shore know where you are going, when you plan to return, and make sure they have your boat type and registration number.
  • Make sure everyone wears a life jacket – every time. A stowed life jacket is no use in an emergency.
  • Use an engine cut-off device – it’s the law. It will stop the boat’s engine should the captain fall overboard.
  • Watch the weather. Always check the forecast before departing on the water and frequently during the excursion.
  • Know what’s going on around you at all times. Nearly a quarter of all reported boating accidents in 2020 were caused by operator inattention or lack of a lookout.
  • Be familiar with the area, local boating speed zones, and always travel at a safe speed.
  • Never boat under the influence. A BUI is involved in one-third of all recreational boating fatalities. Always designate a sober skipper.

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