This is the time of the year when seasonal boaters around the U.S. are getting their boats ready for boating season - whether it be ocean boating, lake boating, or river boating. This article is timely because May is Boating Safety Month - a nationally recognized awareness month for the recreational boating industry.
The marine industry holds significant national economic impact and has an overall economic impact of approximately $8.8 Billion and by now, I hope that everyone locally knows that the marine industry employs over 117,000 people in Broward County. The Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show alone contributes approximately 10% ($857 Million) of the national total. We also have 30,000 feet of dock space, over 44,000 registered vessels, and two million feet of shoreline, which helps us hold onto the prized title of “Boating and Yachting Capital of the World.”
Because of this, it’s critical that local and regional leaders are aware of, and support, the various facets of the marine industry; one important aspect, especially for recreational boating, is boating safety.
As I opened with May is Boating Safety Month - with a microfocus on the week prior to Memorial Day (May 18 to 24), which is the kickoff to the summer boating season. Focus on boating safety is important because accident statistics show boating can be dangerous when proper care isn’t taken.
In 2017, for example, there were 4,291 boating accidents (in the U.S.) including:
- 658 deaths
- 2,629 injuries
Ten percent (10%) of those boating related deaths were in the state of Florida.
In addition, there was approximately $46 million in property damage for those accidents because over 50% were collisions with fixed objects, other boats, docks, wildlife, etc.
Where cause of death was known:
- 76% of fatal boating accident victims drowned
- 5% of those who drowned were not wearing a life jacket
- 81% of deaths occurred on boats where the operator had not received boating safety instruction
- Only 14% percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally-approved boating safety education certificate
This illustrates that many who set out boating are ill-informed, ill-equipped, and ill-prepared. In fact, the top five (5) primary contributing factors to boating accidents are:
- operator inattention
- improper look-out
- operator inexperience
- machinery failure
- alcohol use, which was present in 20% of the incidents
As a community that’s focused on the marine industry, especially in the recreational boating area, what can we do to address these statistics?
Here are our recommendations to make this year (and every year, going forward) a safer time on the water.
Learn how to be safe. After years of providing safety and survival products and services to the marine industry, I’m sharing what we learned about boating safety. Learning is a key element in safety:
- Take a course: The Red Cross, USCG Auxiliary, Power Squadron and other nonprofit organizations provide free instruction on safe boating. Learning and practicing with the rules of the water, the signals, and the navigation techniques are critical before you get in the boat. Know how to handle your boat, and what to do if another boat is coming at you.
- Obey the rules and be aware of your surroundings: Some of the drowning victims fell overboard, but no one knew.
- Be prepared: The motto of the U.S. Coast Guard is “Semper Paratus” – translated as “always prepared”. When asked about matters of safety, those people who had personal experiences being in accidents, in danger, or just bewildered at sea all had a common element – “it wasn’t one thing” (that caused the accident).
An unlikely combination of events or issues, each with a relatively low probably of occurring, all happened at once. Keep your boat stocked with the recommended safety equipment. Know where it is and know how to use it. Have extra life jackets for guests. If you’re boating solo, employ a throttle kill switch. Above all else, be smart and do your homework.
- Plan for the worst and hope for the best: Some of those who were killed or injured went out on the water often but had not an experience with a dangerous or life-threatening situation. Each of them thought: “It won’t happen to me because I’m a safe boater.” Don’t be that person! Plan for a situation in which everything goes wrong; then hope you never have to use it.
- When something bad does happen, know what to do to improve your chances, and have an alert: a method of notifying rescue agencies that you’ve been involved in an accident (a second method of contact other than the boat radio). This should include:
- A repeating signal: in case you’re in the water and moving
- A GPS location in that repeating signal
Make yourself survivable, including personal floatation devices, proper gear, with visual or audible signals on your jacket.
Over the past several years, the National Safe Boating Council brought attention to the topic of boating safety. One program, “Wear it,” focused on life jackets, because 85% of the people who drowned in 2017 were not wearing a life jacket.
Another program is “Saved by the Beacon,” with April 6th designated as ‘406 day’ because Search and Rescue beacons broadcast emergency position data on 406-megahertz frequency. Beacons save lives by providing three of the four critical items listed earlier that improve your chances of survival.
If you are a boater, set an example. If you are a guest, politely ask about safety equipment and preparation. If you are a part of community leadership, do your part to ensure the safety infrastructure is in place and funded to minimize danger.
It doesn’t take much to be safe. No one would think twice about being out on the water all day without sunscreen or water; apply the same care to your boating safety equipment.
The good news is that, since 1997, the number of boating accidents has dropped by approximately 50%. But the statistics indicate that there’s still more work to be done.
The U.S. Coast Guard (www.uscg.org), U.S. Power Squadrons (www.usps.org), Boat U.S. (www.boatus.org) and foundations such as www.monicaburguerafoundation.org and www.austinblufoundation.org are excellent resources to learn more and stay current on these safety topics. These organizations are dedicated to raising awareness and promoting educational programs designed to improve boater safety and reduce accidents on the water.
Make water safety a priority; be the example to ensure everyone is a safe, clean, responsible boater.
 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics, US Coast Guard, May 2018