The boating industry hadn’t seen anything like it.
As U.S. residents turned to the outdoors for recreation during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, boat sales rose 12% and builders scurried to fill a backlog of tens of thousands of new orders, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
The surge resulted in 415,000 first-time boat buyers, a 35% year-over-year increase, according to Info-Link.
Now boating safety experts are facing heightened challenges.
As the nation’s waters have gotten more crowded, including a large cohort of inexperienced operators, boating accidents and fatalities are on the rise.
In 2020, accidents increased 26%, injuries rose 25% and fatalities jumped 25%, according to recently released U.S. Coast Guard figures.
Wisconsin data mirrors the troubling national trend. Through June 28, 13 people had died in boating accidents in the Badger State, 30% more than at the same time in 2020, according to the Department of Natural Resources data.
If the rate holds through the rest of the year, Wisconsin would see a 40% hike in boating fatalities compared to the 10-year average.
The hike in boating activity and accidents has safety experts on the offensive as the state and nation head into the Fourth of July holiday, traditionally one of the busiest times of the year for water recreation.
The Wisconsin DNR issued a reminder Thursday that operator inexperience, inattention, recklessness and speeding are the four leading causes of tragic watercraft crashes.
In addition, the leading cause of death is drowning.
Crash statistics indicate boaters who wear life jackets and take boater safety courses are most likely to stay safe on Wisconsin waters, according to the DNR.
Jim Emmons, executive director of the Water Sports Foundation, said the increase in accidents and fatalities is likely the result of many more boaters spending more hours on the water. Headquartered in Orlando, Florida, the Water Sports Foundation is the non-profit educational arm of the Water Sports Industry Association.
Despite the latest numbers, Emmons said according to U.S. Coast Guard and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, recreational boating is still more than twice as safe as walking on the side of the street.
To reduce accidents, fatalities and injuries, he advocates a strong push for boater education.
U.S. Coast Guard statistics confirm 77% of boating deaths occurred on boats where the operator had no safety instruction, Emmons said, and the number drops to only 12% when the operator had received a nationally-approved boating safety education certificate.
“It’s a no brainer,” Emmons said. “In-person and online boater education courses dramatically improve a boater’s chance for a safe and fun time on the water this summer.”
Wisconsin law requires boat operators born on or after Jan. 1, 1989 to have earned a safety certification or out of state equivalent.
Boaters in Wisconsin can expect to see a heightened law enforcement presence on the water and at boat landings this weekend.
The DNR is once again taking part in Operation Dry Water, a national campaign to detect impaired boaters and educate the public about the dangers of boating under the influence.
Alcohol use is a leading factor in recreational boating fatalities, according to the DNR.
Since Operation Dry Water started in 2009, law enforcement officers across the nation have removed more than 4,700 impaired operators from our nation’s waterways, preventing dangerous and potentially devastating consequences.
The easiest and most important things for people to remember is to boat sober and wear their life jacket, said Lt. Darren Kuhn, DNR boating law administrator.
Kuhn called boating under the influence “a 100% preventable crime.”
“Whether you’re driving the boat or enjoying it as a passenger, being under the influence can cause slips, falls overboard and other dangerous incidents,” Kuhn said.
The DNR’s recommendations for safe boating include:
• Wear a life jacket at all times when on or in the water.
• Leave alcohol on shore.
• Have emergency supplies on board, including a fire extinguisher, cellphone, maps, flares and first aid kit.
• Keep a close eye on the weather and bring a radio.
• Tell someone where you are going and when you will return.
• Learn and follow boat traffic and navigation rules.
“We want boaters to avoid becoming a boating statistic over this holiday weekend by practicing a few safety measures to keep everyone safe,” said Emmons of the Water Sports Foundation. “We believe safe boaters are happy boaters, so let’s all have fun by being well-prepared and safe on the water.”