Alcohol, lack of education add to rise in boating deaths
Over the Fourth of July holiday period, which covers June 29 through July 8, call volume to on-water assistance fleet Sea Tow increased 16 percent over the prior year. The increase falls in line with a summer where boating accidents are up, according to the group.
Much of the increase can be attributed to more boaters being on the water this year; however, less-educated boaters and alcohol use are also playing a role, according to Joe Frohnhoefer, founder and CEO of Sea Tow.
Lack of education is issue number one, said Gail Kulp, executive director of the Sea Tow Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to safety on the water.
Kulp cited a statistic by the U.S. Coast Guard that said 78 percent of boat operators who were killed in 2011 had no previous boating instruction.
“There are so many options now for boater education. You can do it online or only do it a couple hours at a time,” she said. “There is really no excuse today.”
Frohnhoefer said a lack of education leads to a lack of courtesy. Accidents like those caused by the wakes of large boats occur because the operator doesn’t realize the effects of their wake on anchored boaters, for example.
These bigger boats are safer than those used in the 1960s, when the rate of boating fatalities was almost three times what it is today. But many buyers of these more powerful boats lack long-term boating experience, according to Tim Smalley, boat and water safety information officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“Many people now getting into boating haven’t grown ups as kids watching mom and dad,” Smalley said. “They don’t have that basic knowledge that it is important to have your lights on at night, why to stay away from boaters in the water.”
Currently, Minnesota is not one of the states that require some level of boater education for all boaters, but it is something he expects to be implemented in the future.
“Right now, people don’t need anything more than the credit to buy these powerful boats in order to operate it,” he said.
Kulp said the Sea Tow Foundation also advocates for everyone to wear a life jacket while on the boat, a more comfortable task with new models like the belt-pack design, for example.
Alcohol is the other major factor in fatalities on the water. Alcohol-related deaths are becoming a larger portion of all boating deaths in Minnesota, according to Smalley. Prior to last year, alcohol was found in 30 percent of boating fatalities. In 2011, 50 percent of those killed while boating had alcohol in their system.
“Unfortunately, it is a trend we feel is coming back,” Smalley said.
Frohnhoefer said his foundation is working to spread the message that alcohol and boats do not mix. With the warm, humid weather and the fun atmosphere, boaters often forget the dangers of alcohol while on the water, he said.
“The main focus is to get the sober skipper out on the water, just like in a car when you designate a driver, we ask boaters to designate a sober skipper,” he said.