2017-08-16 / Top News

Lee, Collier, Charlotte ranked among state’s top 11 counties for boating accidents

FWC officer making a boating safety check. 
COURTESY PHOTO FWC officer making a boating safety check. COURTESY PHOTO “Following deadly crash, Memorial Day brings boating safety into focus” is how one local media outlet heralded the news of an incident that claimed the life of one 12-year-old boy and injured four others in May.

While tragedies such as this may get our attention, they’re doing in little to stem the increase in recreational boating accidents. Make no mistake — boating safety absolutely MUST come into focus.

In June, the U.S. Coast Guard released its annual report on recreational boating accidents, and the news wasn’t good. From 2015 to 2016, the number of boating accidents nationally has increased by 7.3 percent. Even worse, the number of injuries has jumped by 11.1 percent — and deaths by 12 percent.

Floridians love their boats. The state leads the nation in boat ownership, with nearly 1 million registered vessels. Unfortunately, we also lead the nation in boating accidents — and fatalities due to those accidents. Falling overboard, collisions with a fixed object and capsizing are the top types of accidents, with the primary cause of death being drowning.

Does Florida have more boating accidents simply because it has more boats? That would provide a convenient explanation. But the statistics suggest otherwise.

Minnesota and Michigan rank No. 2 and 3, respectively, behind Florida in registered vessels, yet those states don’t even appear on the Top 11 list for boating accidents. California, which is ranked fourth in the number of registered vessels, comes in at No. 2 in accidents with 369 — while Florida’s is nearly double that at 671.

Clearly, the issue is not one merely of volume.

This is further evidenced by the breakdown of boating accidents within the state, itself. A whopping 64 percent of all boating accidents in Florida occur in only 11 counties. Ranked at fifth, seventh and 10th, respectively, are Lee, Collier and Charlotte. Those numbers come from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the investigating agency on more than 85 percent of boating accidents.

Out of 22,312 vessels in Charlotte County, there were 18 reportable accidents, which resulted in 11 injuries and four fatalities. Collier had 22,846 vessels with 31 accidents resulting in 20 injuries. Lee County’s 41,789 vessels saw 39 accidents with 29 injuries and six fatalities.

The only bright spot in the equation is that the vast majority of boating accidents are preventable. Three culprits stand out among the rest as being the most significant: alcohol, ignorance and not wearing a life jacket.

Booze, you lose

According to the Boat U.S. Foundation, almost half of all boating accidents involve alcohol. The USCG adds that alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents; where the primary cause was known, it was listed as the leading factor in 15 percent of deaths.

In most states, the standards for determining whether an individual is intoxicated matches its state highway laws for operating a vehicle. According to In Florida it is illegal to operate a vessel with a blood alcohol content level of 0.08 percent or higher.

Having fewer vehicles on the water than on a highway does not make boating under the influence any less dangerous. Federal laws reflect that.

Operating a boat while intoxicated is a federal offense, subject to a $1,000 fine. In addition, criminal penalties are as high as $5,000, and may even include jail time. “Boating under the influence” laws are becoming more severe on a statewide level, as well.

“We do see a lot of alcohol use on the water, there’s no secret to that,” said Sgt. Bill Maymon, supervisor of the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol. “You go up to locations up in Englewood on a Saturday — the sand bar area by the boat bank, causeway bridge, Stump Pass — and look around and you’ll see hundreds of boats. I would say that with a high percentage of them, there’s alcohol on board, whether it’s the driver or not. That’s just the case. Boating recreation has always had alcohol tied to it.”

Being intoxicated on the water is worse than on land. Although alcohol causes the same effects regardless of whether you’re on land or sea — loss of balance, impaired judgment and slower reaction time — simply the activity of boating, itself, could add stressors that alcohol only magnifies. Exposure to sun, wind and glare, the motion of the water, and the noise and vibration of your boat’s engine causes fatigue and can lead to “boater’s hypnosis,” a condition that imitates being legally drunk. Add alcohol to these stressors, and you’re mixing one dangerous cocktail.

“People go out and just want a good time, want to enjoy the water, but I don’t think they realize that the wind, the sun, the heat all have an influence on you,” Sgt. Maymon said. “People don’t realize that you take alcohol out of the equation and when you’ve spent time being out on a boat, you’re typically wiped when you get back — the sun drains you. Add alcohol to that mix and people can become impaired much easier than when they’re sitting in an air-conditioned building. If you’re out in a boat and you’re exposed to those elements, you’re going to get impaired a lot faster — you’re going to get fatigued a lot faster, your reaction time is going to slow down, you’re not going to be as sharp as you would normally be.”

He compares boating to driving an automotive vehicle.

“You need to have a designated driver who’s responsible for the operation of the boat,” he said. “That person needs to be sober. That’s probably the best way to think about that. There’s no law about having an open container on a boat or consuming alcohol on a boat. But there are laws that prohibit people from operating under the influence.”

However, a good number of sober boaters put themselves in danger even before — or without — alcohol.

Ignorance is not bliss

“For one, drinking and being under the influence is always an issue with boat crashes,” said Lt. Chris Nyce of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol. “And two, just carelessness — people not paying attention, excessive speed, people trying to pick other people up out of the water and maybe just not knowing their boat or how things operate on the water, not taking the weather seriously. Those seem to be the biggest factors.”

You wouldn’t allow someone to drive an automobile who doesn’t know how to operate it. Yet there are people who command ships who don’t know enough about how they work. The USCG discovered that 77 percent of deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction. Only 13 percent occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally approved boating safety education certificate.

“Inexperience of the boat’s operator, excessive speed and the lack of knowledge of basic navigational rules are common causes of boating accidents,” said USCG Master Capt. Dan Maruszczak. “Conditions on the water can be unpredictable and often change rapidly, and a boat’s operator needs to be aware and vigilant.

“Education, time on the water at the helm and knowledge of your vessel inside and out are major factors in a new boater’s chances of having an enjoyable and safe time while boating. Every new boater should consider online boating safety courses, classes at a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary facility or an on-the-water class on their own vessel with a local U.S. Coast Guard licensed Master Captain.”

Several boating organizations offer classes that cover basic seamanship, safe boating and GPS use, as well as more advanced topics:

• FWC publishes a list of recommended boating safety courses in both classroom and online format at myfwc.com/ boating/safety-education/courses.

• USCG Auxiliary’s District 7, its largest, covers the state of Florida. Visit www.uscga-district-7.org, where you can also find a list of safe-boating classes.

• Links to District 22 of the United States Power Squadrons can be found at www.usps.org/localusps/d22/squadrons/index2.html.

It’s one thing to get education on safe boating, but it’s quite another to actually use it.

Life support

Sometimes it’s not a lack of education but a lack of common sense that’s the problem.

Harry Julian, CEO of the maritime business Pure Florida, attributes a good number of boating accidents to poor seamanship and “people not understanding what’s out there.”

Not knowing about safe waters and navigation are how boaters get into trouble, he added.

Getting “caught by the weather” is an issue Lt. Nyce finds particularly bothersome.

He identifies that boaters who either don’t pay attention to the weather report or ignore it and stay out on the water contribute to their fair share of boating accidents.

“With the storm comes the wind, and when you’re in a smaller boat trying to make way in that stuff, that’s when people end up in the water,” he said.

Foul weather is bad enough. However, there’s another issue that adds to the problem.

“The boat crashes that we have that are weather–related, you find, quite frankly, and you find people with no life jackets on. ”

According to the USCG, where cause of death was known, 80 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims, 83 percent were not wearing a life jacket.

Tiffany Sawyer-Schenk, executive director of Marine Industries Association of Collier County, said her organization works with the Community Foundation of Collier County for the “Kids Don’t Float” life jacket program to help get life jackets out on the beaches and around the parks where people who are swimming who might need a life jacket.

“We’ve preached over the years to wear your life jacket,” Lt. Nyce said in frustration. “Nobody does that. I’ve changed to say to them that if the weather starts to look like it’s getting bad, put your life jackets on. I understand people aren’t going to wear them all the time.” ¦

—Staff writer Robbie Spencer contributed to this story

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