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If We Really Wanted to Make Boating Safer, Where Would We Start?

Safety Moment, Cruising Club of America, June 2017

Chuck Hawley

Safe boating in capable offshore sail and power boats is a mainstay of the Cruising Club of America. Through our Safety and Seamanship Committee, the Club disseminates information about safe vessel operation and also sponsors seminars and courses that encourage members (and non-members) to understand more about accident avoidance and safe boat operation.

One of the ways that our friends at the Coast Guard measure the overall state of boating safety is to compile accident data every year from the states and territories, and then summarize this information in an annual publication called Boating Statistics. This roughly 100-page document can be downloaded for free from the Office of Boating Safety at

Here are some points that I found interesting from the 2016 edition of Boating Statistics, which was published last week:

  1. Boating fatalities rose 12% compared to the previous year, to 701 deaths. The U.S. had been on a pretty good roll for a while, with deaths reaching their lowest level in 40 years in 2013 (560) and then rising slowly in 2014 and 2015. The number of deaths in 2015 is very consistent with those of 2003-2008, perhaps implying that, without substantial changes in regulations or the popularity of boating, we can expect this rate to continue.
    1. Note that there are several external influences on boating popularity and therefore boating exposure hours. One is the cost of fuel, which has a substantial impact on boat use, while the other is having a late winter in states where boats are hauled out over the winter.
  2. The trend for total accidents and injuries had a slight uptick in 2016, but it’s important to view these measurements with some skepticism. Both had dropped dramatically since the turn of the century, while the number of boating deaths has stayed relatively stable. The number of deaths is probably known to an accuracy of 1%, while the reporting of accidents and injuries is highly suspect.
  3. Open motorboats continue to be the type of boat with the greatest number of deaths (323, or 46%), but they are also arguably the most common type of recreational boat. Their share of deaths is down from 52% a decade ago.
  4. If deaths in Open Motorboats are down, what types of boats are getting more dangerous?
    1. Deaths on pontoon boats roughly doubled from 3.5% to 7%.
    2. Canoes and kayaks rose from about 12% to 22%.
    3. Standup paddle boards have grown from 0% to 2%.
    4. Sailboats remain at the bottom of the list, with only 16 out of 701 fatalities occurring on sailboats of all types. In an average year, 24 sailors die, representing only 3.5% of the total.
  5. The Coast Guard frequently reports on the number of fatal accidents that happen when the operator has no formal boating instruction (77%). What’s misleading about this statistic is that there is no comparison to the population of boaters who don’t have fatal accidents, and therefore it’s difficult to conclude, as much as we might hope it’s the case, that boating instruction lowers fatal accidents.
  6. If you are sailing, what’s likely to be the cause of an accident should you have one? For auxiliary sailboats, the key accident causes are collisions with recreational boats (155), collision with a fixed object (28), and grounding (31). Falls overboard were reported in only 7 instances of sailboat accidents.
  7. Finally, 2016 was completely typical of past years in the number of deaths due to drowning. Drowning was the cause of death for 73% of the boaters, and of those who drowned, 83% were not wearing a life jacket. However, this still leaves 17% or 86 boaters who drowned while wearing a life jacket.