Growing interest in boating leads to more fatalities and accidents

David Beek knows the waterways of Newport Beach, California better than anyone. His family have owned and operated the Balboa Island Ferry, a commuter boat for cars and people, for over 100 years. And from his perch on the ferry’s supply dock, he can see everything that is happening in Newport Harbor.

Over the past 15 months, he said, “we’ve seen a lot of stupid things.” Rental of kayaks floating directly on the tracks. Parking for small electric boats in the ferry dock. Even the slow ferry bypassing unconscious paddle boarders. “A lot of these people are inexperienced,” Beek said. “They are recruits. “

Boating, a hobby highly conducive to social distancing, has exploded during the pandemic. Sales of new boats peaked in 13 years in 2020, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, while purchases of wake boats in particular – boats used for water skiing and wakesurfing – soared 20%. GetMyBoat, an online boat rental market, saw its business grow by 700% in 2021.

But as interest in boating has grown, so have boating accidents.

There were 767 boating-related deaths in the United States in 2020, an increase of more than 25% from 2019, according to the United States Coast Guard. The total number of accidents increased by 26% and the number of non-fatal injuries increased by 25%. Statistics for 2021 have not yet been released, but preliminary data from the Coast Guard shows the death toll so far to be even higher.

In 77 percent of fatal cases, according to the Coast Guard, the boat’s operator had not received any training.

“From July to August 2020, this was the highest number of accidents in the 23 years we have recorded,” said Captain Verne Tifford, who heads the Coast Guard’s boating safety division.

In some cases, the rise has made passing boaters heroes.

St. Louis emergency room doctor Dr. Jeffrey Davis took a family vacation to San Diego in March, hoping to relax with his wife and three daughters. And he relaxed – until the family went on a whale-watching expedition in San Diego Harbor, and their boat ran into a small cruiser that crashed into a wave. Three passengers were thrown into the water and were run over by their own boat after falling. One of them was catastrophically injured in the leg.

“When they lifted him up, his leg was almost completely severed at the knee,” Dr Davis said. “It was a total disaster from an injury.”

While the whaling captain telephoned the harbor police, Dr Davis jumped into the other boat and used his own belt to tie a tourniquet around the man’s leg. He kept him alive until they could be transported to shore, where an emergency management team was waiting.

“It was a learning moment for my daughters, about what doctors do and what spectators are capable of doing,” he said. “But the trip blew up.”

In other cases, the Coast Guard has had to manage multiple crises in the same waterway at the same time.

Vanessa Rivers, a travel blogger and swimwear designer based in Malibu, Calif., Was sailing with two friends off the coast near Seattle in June when they spotted a broken down motorboat. On board, they found six angry tourists; they had rented the boat, run over an unknown object and were now stranded. Worse yet, a seventh person who had placed an inner tube in the back of the boat was now missing after his rope snapped.

The tourists had contacted the coast guard by radio, but search and rescue teams were busy: another nearby boat had called “mayday” and was sinking.

The motorboat stalled on the bainbridge Island Ferry route, which travels several times a day between Seattle and Bainbridge Island. Ms Rivers’ sailboat took off in search, found the inner tuber over a mile away, and returned it to her friends before Coast Guard rescue teams arrived.

“These people had no idea of ​​safety and didn’t even know they were worried about the ferry,” Ms. Rivers said. “I think we were more scared than them.”

Rules for boaters vary widely by state and age, with only one state, Alabama, requiring a boating license. Most others allow people to take the helm after completing a classroom or online boating safety course. Whether you need to take the course also depends on your age – in California, only those 40 or under are required to take the boating course. If required, tenants typically take a condensed version of the course to earn a temporary boating training certificate.

Coast Guard officials are not disclosing whether they have increased or relocated their search and rescue teams in response to the increase in accidents. But many other boating safety organizations have said they’ve been put to the test. BoatU.S., The nation’s largest boating association, said despite the addition of staff, in 2020 everything was on deck. Boat operates a towing and dispatching service, TowBoatU.S., which saw a 20% increase in the volume of requests for assistance on the water in 2020. Based on the number of calls so far in 2021 He predicts that claims this year will increase by a further 20 percent.

To manage the demand, the company has beefed up its shipping staff by 15%. Use of BoatU.S.’s extensive online boating safety tools library, where new boaters can get basic training, has increased by 70%. The peak in demand was so dramatic that even BoatU.S. Foundation President Chris Edmonston had to step in and help.

“We asked everyone, including me, to provide customer service over the phone for people taking the course who may not be as computer savvy,” said Edmonston.

Finding staff was not the only difficulty. Boat has added 30 tugs to its existing fleet of 600 over the past year, but with boat sales skyrocketing across the country, finding these boats – and the equipment to service them – hasn’t been easy .

“Boats are hard to find and our towers have a hard time finding motors and even electronic components,” said John Condon, vice president of towing services for BoatU.S .. “Obtaining parts to maintain our own equipment was a challenge. “

Calls to Sea Tow, an international water assistance fleet, increased 34% between Memorial Day and Labor Day in 2020, and the numbers remained the same in 2021.

“Everyone would go out with their families, whenever they could go out on the water,” said Kristen Frohnhoefer, president of Sea Tow, of the boat activity last year. “Every day was Saturday.”

She stressed the need for education. “There is enough room on the water for everyone,” she said. “The concern of what we are seeing is that not everyone understands the rules of the road.”

As novices cry out for help, some shipping companies have been forced to get creative.

The majority of emergency calls received over the past year by Safe / Sea, which offers marine assistance in Rhode Island, have come from boaters facing a double challenge: they lacked experience on the water and they also used older second-hand equipment.

“You had kind of a perfect storm,” said Phil Le Blanc, vice president of maritime operations for Safe / Sea. “You have older boats that haven’t been running for years, and you have brand new boaters, and you put them all together.”

When those old boats stalled and new boaters called for help, Safe / Sea struggled to locate them.

“We are now talking to people trying to give me directions based on the exit number for Route 95 they are off,” he said. “I’m not used to having to find people with a road atlas.

To cope, Safe / Sea distributed an old tourist poster to its staff that shows every lighthouse in Rhode Island. They asked call dispatchers to use it as a point of reference while trying to help boaters in distress describe their location. The company has also started using specialized software that allows it to send a text message to blocked iPhone users and receive a pin indicating their location in response.

“We had to think outside the box compared to past years,” said Mr. Le Blanc.

In many riverside towns, cooperation with the police has also increased.

In Newport Beach earlier this month, Paul Blank, the harbor master, established a new protocol with the local police department to seek help if needed. This is the first time the port has coordinated with city police, and Mr Blank said the deal came in response to a small number of reckless boaters endangering others on the water. .

“These are people who claim to be not new to boating although we strongly suspect they are new to boating,” Blank said.

Mr Blank also added two new code enforcement officers, who patrol waterways and are authorized to issue citations and fines. Their priority, Mr Blank said, is to make sure boaters understand the rules first.

Mr Le Blanc, of Safe / Sea, said that even a tiny bit of extra education would make a huge difference in the number of accidents and fatalities on the water.

“Everyone in this industry, be it first responders, police, firefighters, coastguards or environmental policing on the water, really wants everyone to receive a little more training before getting started, ”he said. “It’s okay when they call you and they’re out of fuel and don’t know where they are. But when they sink and catch fire, that’s not a good thing.

Concepción de León contributed reporting.

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