Lessons Learned from the 2019 Boating Season
By Pat Massa, SML Water Safety Council
Each spring, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) publishes the Boating Incident Report from the previous season. To get included, mishaps must meet one or more of four qualifying characteristics: (1) Damages of over $2000 by or to the vessel or its equipment; (2) An injury requiring medical assistance beyond first aid; (3) Loss of life; (4) Disappearance of any person from a vessel.
During 2019, there were 89 such incidents on Virginia waters, involving 94 vessel, 35 injuries and 20 fatalities. Alcohol was a known factor in 20% of the fatalities. Paddle craft (canoes kayaks and paddleboards) were involved in 10% of fatal incidents. In all but one (95%) of the fatal incidents no life jacket was worn.
A few more specifics: As you would expect, most incidents happen during prime season, though in 2019 nearly 75% of November incidents resulted in loss of life. Cold weather months definitely require those on the water be extra careful and prepared. The vessel type most typically involved is “Open Motorboat.” Leading locations of boating Incidents are the Chesapeake Bay followed by our own Smith Mountain Lake. The most frequent types of fatality incidents are “collision with a fixed object” and “capsizing.” About 50% of the boats involved are 16 to 26 feet and the highest percentage of involved operators are age 56 and over (37%). The most common cause of fatality is falling overboard. Of the 20 deaths, nineteen victims were not wearing life jackets (the other fatality involved improper wearing of a PFD).
Specific to Smith Mountain Lake: No drownings occurred at SML in 2019—exactly the result your Water Safety Council works hard to achieve. That’s an improvement from both 2017 and 2018 when there was one fatality each year, though none of those involved a boat and thus were not reported as “boating incidents.”
Since the enactment of the safe boating law, incidents have decreased significantly, attesting to the value and importance of boating education. What do we need to do to keep ourselves and others safe? First, everyone aboard a vessel should be wearing a life jacket. Should they find themselves in the water, their chances of survival are dramatically improved. Second, boat operators must remain unimpaired by alcohol or drugs and appoint a crew member to act as a lookout to warn of hazards.
Throughout the year, you will see articles on these and other water safety topics from members of the Water Safety Council. Pay attention and take their recommendations with you on the water. Sign up for one the new Boating Education refresher courses (listed at VDGIF.gov). Make sure you, your boat and your crew are prepared for a safe boating season.
Be safe and courteous out there….that’s how you avoid becoming part of the statistics!
Patrick Massa Chair- SMLA Water Safety Council