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:
Operator Inattention Operator inattention was the primary contributing factor in 620 boating accidents, resulting in 381 injuries and 45 deaths. (2017)
Improper Lookout Improper lookout was the primary contributing factor in 471 boating accidents, resulting in 337 injuries and 23 deaths. (2017)
Operator Inexperience Operator inexperience was the primary contributing factor in 436 boating accidents, resulting in 249 injuries and 63 deaths. (2017)
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...
CAUSE #1. OPERATOR INATTENTION
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:
Don’t use the phone. This includes texting, talking, posting on social media, and sending emails. Even hands-free conversations can take your attention off the water and lead to serious accidents. “Lack of concentration is even more dangerous on the water than in a car because conditions on the water can change within a matter of minutes,” cautions Dann. “And unlike cars on the highways, boaters are typically zigzagging all over the water—plus boats come in many vastly different sizes and move at very different rates of speed.” So, if you need to contact someone, wait until you’re docked or anchored, or have a passenger or crew member do it for you.
Eat before you go or only while docked or anchored. Scarfing down lunch with one hand on the wheel means you won’t have as much control over your boat as you should.
Know where you’re going. “Before you head out on the water, spend time on land memorizing the location of your boat controls,” advises Dann. “Learn how to use your GPS at the dock, so you won’t be steering head down, trying to figure out how to toggle between screens while underway. Be able to move your hand between the throttle and wheel without looking down, and know the location of the trim switch, running lights and bilge switch by feel.”
Delegate when necessary. If you need to check instruments or equipment on board, have someone else do this for you. Ditto for adjusting the music, communicating with water skiers or wakeboarders, and taking pictures. “Any non-driving activity you engage in is a potential distraction and can increase your risk of an accident,” says Dann.
Learn why everyone on the boat should stay aware, not just the captain.
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:
Accessing every tool in your toolbox. In Rule 5, “all available means” refers to radar, AIS, automatic radar plotting aids, vessel traffic services, VHF radios, and good old-fashioned binoculars, Dann explains. “So, if your boat is equipped with these tools, you are not only obligated to use them, but also to know how to use them.”
Knowing your lights. Study the characteristics of lit buoys. Lighted buoys flash in all sorts of different patterns so that they can be identified individually. “This is a valuable tool for confirming your location,” says Dann. “Larger commercial vessels can have a variety of different navigational lights displayed, depending on what they are doing. The closer a ship gets to you, the farther apart their running lights appear. It can be confusing on a dark night if you don’t know what to look for.”
Researching the waterways before you head out. Dann recalls a recent tragic story where two boaters were on their way back into a harbor at night and ran full speed into an unlit navigational buoy. “The vessel operator was killed on impact,” Dann reports. “Had they studied the chart, they would have seen that this particular harbor has many unlit navigational aids and would have known to look out for them.”
Learn Rule 5 of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
“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?
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:
Water depth. Is it deep or shallow? Shallow water accompanied by wind creates steep nasty chop, whereas with deeper water waves take longer to develop and have a longer wave period. “Boaters should consider enforcing a minimum under keel clearance when planning a route,” says Dann. “By pretending your boat draws a couple of extra feet, you minimize the risk of grounding.”
Currents. Are there any strong currents that you need to be aware of? When wind and current oppose one another, you get rough wave conditions. Significant currents can also impact the ETA to your destination, which could put you in unfavorable conditions, such as transiting an unfamiliar area in darkness.
Route Planning. When laying out your route, scan for potential hazards—sudden shoaling, rocks etc.—and have an alternate route. That way, if the weather changes, you have plan B, which might be a safer ride.
Commercial traffic patterns en route to your destination. “A common sight during boating season is seeing a recreational boat cruising slowly down the center of a channel, while a large commercial vessel is blaring the danger signal trying to get them to move,” reports Dann. “More often than not, there is plenty of water for the smaller vessel to transit outside of the channel. I’m not recommending always going outside of the channel, but if you take the time to study the area, you will know if that option is available—and possibly avoid a close encounter.”
Ports of refuge. Select multiple ports of refuge throughout your route, especially where two bodies of water meet and conditions can change. Ports of refuge should offer protection from weather, as well as access to facilities.
Weather forecasts. Check the NWS marine forecast for all of the areas you will be transiting— point of departure, destination, and everything in between. Never hesitate to cancel or postpone your plans in inclement weather.
Be Prepared for Emergencies
Remember, safety at sea always includes:
Having sufficient provisions. This includes water and food for the duration of your trip—plus a reasonable (1-2- day) safety margin.
Having all the tools you need. Make sure your ditch bag and first aid kit are fully stocked before leaving the dock.
Filing a float plan. Whether you’re planning to venture out for an afternoon, or setting off for an ocean crossing, you need to let someone know where you’re going, and when you expect to return. Think if this critical document as leaving a footprint on the water that can be followed by anyone who may be searching for you.
Learning how to plan ahead is a critical step in overcoming inexperience.
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:
Getting a vessel checkup before departure. “Most mechanical failures and problems at sea relate to lack of preparation before you start (along with regular maintenance checks),” says Dann. “Before you cast off, every moving and standing part of your boat should be checked, and all deck equipment should be running smoothly, washed in fresh water and lubricated as appropriate. Where applicable, rigging should also be checked for potential failures, cracks or weaknesses in wire or rods.”
Carrying spare parts. Prior to getting underway it is important to make sure that you have critical spares onboard, and the proper tools needed for repairs. If you are lacking mechanical knowledge, hire a mechanic to teach you about your equipment, and how to properly maintain it. This way, if you have a fuel filter clog up on you, you’ll have the knowledge, the spares, and the tools to swap it out properly, and continue on your way.
Topping off your tank. When you run out of gas on the highway, you can call AAA. On the water, there are towing agencies that will bring you enough fuel to get you to port for a fee. But if you run out of gas in the middle of the Gulf Stream, the situation can fast become dire. Unless someone is in range of your VHF, you could be stranded for a while. “Running out of fuel can happen when you miscalculate your return and find yourself far from the inlet and far beyond your fuel range,” says Dann. “Or maybe you had to skirt unexpected storms or even run offshore to avoid them.” So, before leaving the dock, take stock of what you plan to do. Calculate the fuel you think you’ll need to go out to play or fish, etc., and return safely to port. Then add 10 to 20 percent more as a safety margin.
Knowing how to navigate the old-fashioned way. It’s easy to become dependent on today’s dizzying array of navigational electronics. But should these systems prove to be unreliable—or worse, shut down—a safer and more accurate journey will require channeling your inner ancient mariner.
“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.