Coast Guard rescues family after their boat accidentally runs aground
Coast Guard rescues family after their boat accidentally runs aground
The US Coast Guard rescues an injured family after their boat accidentally runs aground.

Top 4 Causes of Boating Accidents and How to Prevent Them

By DAN Boater

Quick—what’s the number one cause of boating accidents? Most people assume that boating under the influence is the top answer. But according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s most recent Recreational Boating Statistics report, four hazardous situations trump alcohol:

  1. Operator Inattention
    Operator inattention was the primary contributing factor in 620 boating accidents, resulting in 381 injuries and 45 deaths. (2017)
  2. Improper Lookout
    Improper lookout was the primary contributing factor in 471 boating accidents, resulting in 337 injuries and 23 deaths. (2017)
  3. Operator Inexperience
    Operator inexperience was the primary contributing factor in 436 boating accidents, resulting in 249 injuries and 63 deaths. (2017)
  4. Mechanical Failure
    Machinery failure was the primary contributing factor in 305 boating accidents, resulting in 80 injuries and 9 deaths. (2017)

The good news is that all of these can be prevented with proper preparation.

For advice on how to do that, we spoke with Jeremy Dann, professional mariner and President of Untold Horizon LLC, which offers personalized voyage plans to destinations within the coastal United States, Caribbean, and Bahamas.

Here's what we learned...


Equally important to paying attention to details before you cast off is paying attention while you’re on the water—both to your vessel and your surroundings. This means avoiding all distractions!

Distracted boating can be as dangerous as distracted driving. In fact, increased use of personal electronic devices by vessel operators is such a growing problem that “Eliminating Distractions” landed at the top of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s 2019 -2020 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. What’s more, following the much-publicized fatal collision between the 78.9-foot tugboat, Caribbean Sea, and the anchored 33-foot amphibious passenger vehicle, DUKW 34, in the Delaware River, the U.S. Coast Guard has prohibited the use of wireless devices by operators of Coast Guard boats and restricted their use by other crew members. The tugboat lookout was on a cell phone call when the crash occurred, killing two tourists and injuring 28 other passengers.

To avoid dangerous distractions while at the helm:

Learn why everyone on the boat should stay aware, not just the captain.

VIDEO: "Operator Inattention" - Kalkomey Enterprises, LLC


All boaters recognize that there are many distractions on the water. As skipper, it is your responsibility to constantly scan your surroundings to make sure there is nothing impeding your course. This means keeping your eyes and ears open to observe or hear something that may endanger you/your passengers or affect your/their safety. “Keep your head on a swivel,” says Dann. “Lookout for bridge clearances and power lines, buoys, swimmers, floating debris and diver flags. Prior to altering course look all around, as you may have another boat overtaking you.”

That’s a LOT for one person to handle, so it’s always smart to assign another person on board to act as a lookout for potential threats and hazards you might miss. In fact, Rule 5 in the Handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road, the leading reference on maritime navigation rules since 1986, specifically states: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”

“Rule 5 is a bit vague,” acknowledges Dann. “It is left to the skipper’s discretion to determine if more needs to be done to assume a ‘proper lookout,’ but having a second set of eyes and ears to help maintain constant vigilance while your boat is in motion is always a good idea.”

Other ways to minimize the issue of improper lookout include:

Learn Rule 5 of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

VIDEO: "IRPCS COLREGS Rule 5: Look Out" - Get Lost Powerboat Training


“When it comes to boating, it’s very easy to get excited and simply cast off the lines and head for a destination,” says Dann. “Boating in bodies of water like bays and sounds also provide a false sense of security. You can generally see land all around you, so what could possibly go wrong? The answer is—a lot!” His advice?

Get Educated

According to the USCG’s data on accidents, where instruction was known, a whopping 81% of fatalities occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction. Only 14% percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally-approved boating safety education certificate. If you’re a novice, take advantage of classes offered by organizations like the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, America's Boating Club (formerly the U.S. Power Squadrons), SeaTow Foundation, American Sailing Association, and U.S. Powerboating that help newbies gain the skills they need to feel comfortable at the helm. “Also, begin with short day trips, and ease into longer voyages as you gain confidence,” adds Dann.

Think Like a Merchant Mariner

Boat owners not only need to understand the basics of boating and rules of navigation, they also need to be prepared to handle emergency situations. “The old adage, ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’, is never truer than when you go boating,” says Dann. “When merchant mariners receive orders to deliver a cargo to a destination, they prepare a voyage plan. And when creating these plans, mariners are basically planning as if they are destined to fail at reaching their destination. They research weather, current, possible points of refuge along their route in the event of unsafe conditions, and what to do in case of an emergency.”

Think of each voyage as preparing for an exam, only the transit is the exam, Dann advises. From a mariner’s perspective, you need to study:

Be Prepared for Emergencies

Remember, safety at sea always includes:

Learning how to plan ahead is a critical step in overcoming inexperience.

VIDEO: "Planning Ahead" - America's Boating Channel


According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, 414 accidents and 114 injuries occurred due to mechanical failure in 2017. A faulty battery, for example, could mean your boat won’t start, and if this happens at night, your lights won’t work either. As a result, you, your passengers, and your boat are left stranded, helpless and practically invisible.

Proper boat maintenance is crucial for its safe operation, and it is the responsibility of the boat owner to make the necessary checks to ensure that the boat is in good condition. To avoid the dangers mechanical failures on the water can cause, make a point of:

“Merchant mariners are trained to never rely on just one source of navigation,” confirms Dann, who advises practicing the use of all tools available to you whenever you’re underway. “Compare what you see on your plotter to your radar. Can you match the shoreline you see on radar with the chart? Your depth sounder can be used for much more than keeping you off the bottom, or on the fish. Compare the depths your sounder is showing with where you are on the chart. Throughout your transit, you should constantly be confirming your location through multiple sources.”

The importance of plotting on a paper chart cannot be stressed enough, Dann adds. “When things fail, it happens at the worst possible time. I personally have lost GPS in the middle of the night 40nm off the coast of Charleston, with 8’ seas, towing a barge loaded with jet fuel. I was able to go back to my last position on the paper chart and plot a course for Charleston. Within an hour, I was able to pick up the entrance to Charleston on radar to confirm I was heading in the right direction, to receive repairs. It took many years of going to sea to experience this scenario, but it just goes to show that you never know when things will go wrong.”

Learn how to inspect your boat systems and safety equipment by using a pre-departure checklist.

VIDEO: "Vessel Inspection" - America's Boating Channel

Infographic: What Causes Most Boating Accidents?

What causes most boating accidents? (infographic by

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