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June 15, 2011

Maryland boating fatalities soar; no end in sight

Eleven. That's how many boaters have died in Maryland waters so far this year.

To put that in perspective, the state didn't record its fourth boating fatality last year until June 24.

Over the last decade, Maryland has averaged a dozen deaths a year. In 2009, 17 people died in maritime accidents--the highest level since 2000. Last year the number dropped to 13. The National Safe Boating Council ranks Maryland third in boating accidents behind Florida and California (we don’t make the Top 10 for fatalities, however). 

With the boating season not yet in full gear and falling gas prices fueling the urge to get out on the water, it looks like another horrific year on the horizon.

What makes this feel particularly cruel is that the Coast Guard this morning issued a news release touting last year as the safest ever on the water. Six hundred seventy-two people died, four fewer than in 2004 and 26 lower than the average over the last decade.

It doesn't take much to from a safe year to an unsafe one.

Except for the fact that the victims were all men, it’s hard to find an overriding pattern in the 11 deaths.

The mishaps occurred in nine counties, according to Natural Resources Police reports. They have involved pleasure boats, commercial boats, a sailboat and a kayak. Only one accident resulted in multiple deaths. The victims ranged in age from 40 to 81.

"We look at the factors, It's like reading tea leaves," says Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation, a recreational maritime safety organization. "Weather plays a part. The economy plays a part and dumb luck is a big part."

The scary thought is that the death toll could be much higher. On Feb. 10, three experienced anglers were plucked from the waters off Calvert Cliffs by a quick-thinking fishing guide. On April 14 and April 17, a total of eight men were rescued from boats in distress.

Those are the mishaps we know about. Like hunting accidents, there’s many nautical near-misses that go unreported.

 "I worry about this year," Edmonston said. "After a long, cold spring, we know when people go back out again it's going to be trouble. People feel they can just jump in the boat and go like they do in a car. They have a false sense of security because nothing has ever happened to them. But boaters have things coming at them from all sides and underneath. They need situational awareness."

Natural Resources Police brass have already staged one media event to get the word out on water safety. There have been two fatalities since then.

One thing in the 11 accident reports does jump out, as it does almost every year: the overwhelming stubbornness exhibited by adults when it comes to wearing life jackets.

State law requires a child under 13 years of age must wear a life jacket while underway in a vessel that is less than 21 feet in length. In addition, children younger than 4 or who weight less than 50 pounds must have a life jacket equipped with a grab strap, inflatable headrest and crotch strap.

But adults? We are free to kill ourselves and we apparently are up to the task. As NRP Capt. Bob Davis always says, "You can't legislate prudence."

According to Coast Guard statistics, roughly 90 percent of victims in fatal boating accidents weren't wearing a life jacket. State records show 16 of the 17 victims in 2009 failed to take that simple precaution.

The three men rescued at Calvert Cliffs almost certainly owe their lives to their decision to wear life jackets. The vests kept them afloat in icy waters until help arrived.

Edmonston said he was fishing last November in the Chesapeake when he was flagged down by a guy in a sit-on-top kayak who had been blown all the way down the Magothy River to the bridge and couldn't get back. He was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, but no life jacket, and "he didn't have a clue," said Edmonston.

Not surprisingly, July is by far the busiest month for boating accidents in Maryland, followed by August. The most deadly segment of the day is noon to 6 p.m. Alcohol was a factor in 6 of last year's 13 fatalities.

Edmonston and rescue experts from the Coast Guard and NRP recommend these steps to stay safe:

1) Develop a float plan and give it to a friend or relative. Include where you are going, how many people are aboard your vessel, a complete vessel description, and when you plan to return. And, Coast Guardsmen say, make sure you tell that friend or relative when you return. Take the time to download and complete a detailed, Coast Guard-designed float plan template.

2) Check the local weather before shoving off. "Keep an eye on the sky to the west," said Edmonston.

3) Make sure everything is in good working order, fluids are topped off and batteries are charged.

4) Have a marine-band radio aboard and test it before casting off. Channel 16 is monitored by the Coast Guard and is the most reliable way to send a distress call to search and rescue teams.

5) If you have passengers, go over emergency procedures and show people how the radio works. In the first fatality this year, the mate on a boat didn't know how to call for help or run the boat when the captain was knocked overboard.

6) Check that all safety equipment is in good condition and sufficient quantity for passengers. If you get stopped by NRP for a routine inspection, you will be asked to prove you have it on board, so save yourself a ticket. Basic equipment includes correct size and number of life jackets, fire extinguishers, visual distress signals and sound-producing devices, such as a whistle or horn. "It's unbelievable how many people signal distress by waving their arms," Edmonston said.

7) More tips are here.

You can read the national statistics for last year on the Coast Guard website.

"People go out on the water to escape, and that's good," said Edmonston. "But you have to be prepared for what you encounter." 

Posted by Candus Thomson at 7:15 AM | | Comments (1)


I agree with everything on the list, except for one small item. If you plan on giving somebody your float plan, think long and hard about who you entrust with the information and how they will react to the responsibility, especially if you are female and are traveling alone. You'd be amazed how people will use your attempt at a little outdoors adventure to behave really badly and exert control. Here is my sad story of a backpack where I made a bad choice.

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About Candus Thomson
In a world of paper vs. plastic and candy mint vs. breath mint, my early memories involved a debate about the merits of freshwater vs. saltwater.

On the one hand, a great uncle’s fishing cabin on the Susquehanna River beckoned, but so did family gatherings on the Jersey Shore.

The correct answer, thankfully, was, “both.”

As The Sun’s outdoors writer for more than a decade, I’ve fished across Maryland in one day, hiked the width of the state in one hour, camped overnight in the median of I-95 to experience the wildlife between the fast lanes and chased mountain bikers in a 24-hour marathon race.

Those are some of the highlights. I’ve also fallen in a raging Gunpowder River during a trout survey (photo available upon request), had a shark spill its guts on my clothes and been stuck in a sub-freezing Vermont wilderness with men armed with flintlocks and hatchets, shuffling along on ancient wooden snowshoes.

And, in my travels I’ve met lots of you, who share a love of the outdoors and the good times and mishaps that go along with it.

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