U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
When Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and two friends died when their 32-foot boat slammed into a rock jetty off the Florida coast, it pushed boating safety into the headlines across the nation.
None of the victims was wearing a life jacket when the boat hit the jetty while traveling at a high rate of speed in the 3 a.m. accident.
“Operating a boat carries with it some of the same responsibilities as operating a motor vehicle on land,” said Pam Doty, National Water Safety Program Manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "We see grim statistics that tell us that wearing a life jacket can save your life in a boating incident or accident. The importance of each person in a boat wearing a life jacket can't be underestimated."
The 2015 U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that 78 percent of the victims in fatal boating accidents drowned. Of that group, 85 percent were not wearing a life jacket. Coast Guard data also shows that open motorboats were involved in the highest percentages of deaths on the water, 46 percent, and kayaks were second at 12 percent, followed by canoes at 11 percent.
"Kayaks and canoes, because they are much smaller than open motorboats and ride lower in the water, are more prone to rolling over and that presents significant risk to the boater," Doty said. "We know that operator training is important for boat operators and saves lives. Kayaks and canoes take safety concerns to the next level because they are subject to waves tipping them over, so it is important that the operator knows how to respond."
Boating under the influence of alcohol doubles the probability of a watercraft accident and can be as deadly as drinking and driving. In fact, the use of alcohol is involved in approximately a third of all recreational boating fatalities, according to the Coast Guard.
Local law enforcement agencies and the Coast Guard work together to enforce state and federal boating laws, and penalties for boating under the influence include fines, suspension or revocation of boat operator privileges and jail time.
While the number of boating accidents and fatalities don’t come close to those recorded by automobiles, in 2015, the Coast Guard counted 4,158 accidents that involved 626 deaths, 2,613 injuries and about $42 million dollars of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents.
If boaters would take the time to a wear a life jacket, complete a boating safety course and not operate a boat while impaired, the number of fatalities and accidents would drop.
More than 70 percent of boating fatalities involved boat operators who had not received boating safety instruction. On the other hand, only 15 percent of boating fatalities occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally approved boating safety education certificate.
Regardless of the type of craft you choose to cruise the open water, remember that the rules of the water mirror the rules of the road. Both can be unforgiving.