Your truck chases the last shreds of night as there are hints of dawn, with a few hours driving left until you reach your destination. Family and friends are in tow, some sleeping and others waiting in anticipation for the day’s events.
It’s spring again. The snow has finally receded, and now you're just praying that the weatherman keeps up his end of the bargain. Sunny with just a few clouds to provide the temporary but welcomed shade.
Your caravan arrives just after daybreak, and you’re relieved to be the first at the boat launch. For any boater, this is a great sign. After launching the boat with passengers and supplies loaded up, you steer away from the dock and you don’t look back.
That would be the start of every boat owner’s dream season when they set out for their first day on the water. Your real-life version might not be perfect, but once you head out for open water all the little stuff just slips away.
Perfect start or not, there’s one thing that experienced and novice boaters should try to perfect: safety.
In 2012, it was estimated that 22.2 million Americans owned some type of recreational boat. That’s potentially millions of people entering public waters during the spring and summer weekends all at once. They all leave their homes with the same happy thoughts and intentions, to enjoy the weather and great company — even if company is just the fish. However, for those of us in the boating industry, we know that even the best of intentions can turn into the worst of situations.
Depending on where you live, the boating safety reality can be very different. Florida, California and Texas (in that order) lead the nation in boating-related accidents, with a combined 1,187 reported in 2019 — more than half from Florida alone. Nationally, fatalities from boating accidents have decreased for several years, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of each separate accident for the people who are involved.
The U.S. Coast Guard reported that in 2019, there were 4,168 boating-related accidents nationwide. Those incidents resulted in 613 deaths, with 23 percent of the deaths involving alcohol. Even sober drivers are plagued with operator inattention and inexperience. Both were listed as top 5 contributing factors for accidents. However, it’s not wearing a life jacket that led to the 362 drowning deaths in 2019.
We’re less than a month into boating season in some states, however, the phrase “boating accident” is already starting to dot the headlines of local news outlets.
Fishing partners and Columbus, Ohio, residents Gary Cook and Jason Lewis passed away earlier in April after both fell into 43-degree water. After attempting to right the boat, they disappeared from the water’s surface. Investigators concluded that neither was wearing a lifejacket.
Teens Jonathan McClure and Sheldon Mashburn of Claremore, Okla., were tossed from their 16-foot bass boat after it struck a submerged tree stump. Mashburn was able to swim to shore, but McClure remained missing until his body was recovered hours later. Neither teen was wearing a lifejacket.
Best friends Michael Antol and Richard Franas Jr. were out on the water celebrating the start of fishing season two years ago at Mashapaug Lake in Union, Conn. Both had been drinking, but it was Antol who sat behind the wheel, accelerating to 43.5 mph in a 10 mph no-wake zone. He ran the boat aground, tossing Franas from the boat into a tree. Franas then bounced off the tree into the water, where he subsequently drowned. Last month, Antol was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison.
These three stories are evidence that it is often the small decisions that lead to permanent consequences. Most boating accidents are preventable, and according to the statistics, most don’t end in tragedy. A North Carolina man is fortunate to be alive after he fell from his boat. Retired firefighter Newsom Williams saw the incident and took to his kayak to pull the man from the water. The victim had a lifejacket aboard his vessel, but he was not wearing it.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people like Mr. Williams watching the water. It’s up to boaters to prepare themselves for worst-case scenarios, and that starts with proper boating safety. If you’ve never taken a NASBLA-approved boating safety course, we, along with every state and national boating agency, encourage you to do so — even if your state doesn’t require it. If you’re just taking a course to get your license, you’re concentrating on the wrong outcome. Safety is much more important than a card in your wallet. For boaters who have completed a course, you can always refresh your memory by selecting a study guide on your state page at boat-ed or ilearntoboat.