Deaths from boating accidents rose more than 25 percent in 2020, with 26 percent more overall incidents than in 2019 as more people took to the water during pandemic shutdowns, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s annual Recreational Boating Statistics Report.
The report, which also noted a nearly 25 percent spike in boating injuries last year, was released as the USCG heads into what is expected to be a busy holiday enforcement weekend on the water.
That includes trying to reduce the number of boaters operating vessels under the influence of drugs or alcohol in conjunction with partner agencies through Operation Dry Water. The USCG report said alcohol was the key factor behind 18 percent of boating deaths last year, the leading known contributing factor.
“In calendar year 2020, the Coast Guard counted 5,265 accidents that involved 767 deaths, 3,191 injuries and approximately $62.5 million dollars of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents,” the report said. “There is evidence that boating activity rose significantly during the pandemic, from reports of increased boat sales, insurance policies taken out, insurance claims, and calls for towing assistance. The Coast Guard is analyzing variables associated with boating activity to normalize accident data.” Many states also reported difficulties in trying to ensure boats were registered, given the office closures that occurred due to the spread of COVID-19; West Virginia, for example, reported 45 percent fewer boat registrations.
The fatality rate was 6.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels in 2020, while the previous year’s rate was 5.2 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels.
“Where cause of death was known, 75% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 86% were not wearing a life jacket,” the report said. “Where length was known, eight out of every ten boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length… Only 12% percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator was known to have received a nationally-approved boating safety education certificate.”
The most fatalities — 50 percent — happened on open motorboats, followed by kayaks and pontoons. The Coast Guard noted 247 accidents — resulting in 39 deaths and 241 injuries — in which at least one person was struck by a propeller. The report doesn’t count incidents in which the boating operation was not a factor in the person’s death, such as fights aboard boats, self-inflicted wounds, or diving off an anchored vessel.
The top contributing factors by number of accidents were operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed, machinery failure, navigation rules violation, alcohol use, weather, hazardous waters, and the force of a wave or wake. The most accidents, deaths, and injuries occurred on lakes, ponds, or reservoirs, followed by rivers or bayous.
The top types of accidents were collision with another boat, flooding or swamping, collision with a fixed object, grounding, and falls overboard.
“Despite best efforts to document incidents, the Coast Guard is only confident in its capture of deceased victims since fatal accidents undoubtedly involve state or government oversight, and garner more attention in the news media. Data on non-fatal accidents have a much lower confidence level,” the report notes. “Non-fatal accidents are severely under-reported because boaters are unaware of reporting requirements or are unwilling to report.”
Capt. Scott Johnson, chief of the Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety at Coast Guard Headquarters, said the statistics underscore that “it’s crucial for boaters to wear a life jacket at all times because it very likely will save your life if you enter the water unexpectedly.”
“The Coast Guard reminds boaters to make sure that life jackets are serviceable, properly sized, and correctly fastened,” he said.
Capt. Jason Brennell, chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard 17th District in Juneau, said cutter and small boat crews “will be vigilantly patrolling” their local waters “over the holiday weekend and throughout the summer to encourage safe boating habits and enforce regulations.”
“Operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs poses a serious risk to the safety of the boating public,” Brennell said.