What Types of Boating Emergencies Cause the Most Fatalities

Recreational boating is popular in the US, with millions of boaters on the water each year, particularly in Florida. However, it also means the likelihood of boating emergencies increases. 

According to the US Coast Guard (USCG), 658 people died in 4,439 accidents in 2021. About 19 percent involved personal watercraft mishaps like serious jet ski injuries.

About three-quarters of accidents involved boaters with no nationally approved boating safety training. The report also identified operating under the influence of alcohol as a leading factor in 16 percent of fatal boating accidents.

The USCG report revealed that 81 percent of fatal boating emergencies involved drowning. Most victims were not wearing life jackets, an essential safety requirement in boating. It is likely that wearing a life jacket could have prevented many of these fatalities.

In response, the National Safe Boating Council launched the Wear It program in 2012. It aims to educate recreational boaters about the importance of wearing life jackets. Many states also mandate the wearing of life jackets with corresponding fines.

Safety practices in sailboats and other water vessels are critical for preventing drowning and other boating accidents. However, emergency preparedness is also essential when the unexpected happens. This article discusses different types of boating emergencies that cause fatalities and how to prevent them.

Key Takeaways
  • The type of boating emergency that causes the most fatalities is drowning, accounting for 81 percent of deaths.
  • Most boating emergencies are preventable with sufficient knowledge of safe practices and regulations.
  • A reliable boating accident lawyer can help you file a wrongful death suit for negligence in a boating emergency.

Boating Fatalities by the Numbers

The USCG tracks the number and causes of boating accidents and fatalities in the US annually. Their aim is to identify critical improvement areas and inform boating safety policies.

In its executive summary for 2021, it identified collisions as the top accident type for recreational water vessels at 1,226 reported cases. However, the top one for fatalities is falling overboard, with 170 deaths. Open motorboats are the top vessel type, with 287 deaths.

The report also associated life jacket wear with the cause of death. Of the 489 fatalities due to drowning, 81.6 percent were not wearing life jackets.

The following are the contributing factors to fatalities in these boating emergencies:

  • Alcohol use – 86
  • Hazardous waters (strong current, tidal flows) – 68
  • Operator inexperience – 65
  • Operator inattention – 41
  • Weather – 30
  • Excessive speed – 23
  • Navigation rules violation/Improper lookout – 18
  • Force of wave/wake – 16
  • Machinery failure – 12

A yearly comparison of boating accident deaths in the US shows the numbers holding steady, peaking at 767 in 2020. Drowning is the consistent top cause of death in boating emergencies. In 2021, the most deaths occurred mid-afternoon between 2:30 to 4:30 pm in June.

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Most Common Types of Boating Emergencies That Cause Fatalities

Boating emergencies often result from driver error, negligence, and lack of boating safety knowledge and equipment. Below are some that typically lead to fatalities.

Drowning and submersion

Drowning and submersion are the leading cause of boating emergency fatalities. It happens when the boat capsizes or overturns due to unexpected swells or bad weather. Overloaded boats, improper weight distribution, or malfunctioning bilge pumps can also lead to submersion.

Water can enter the boat, causing it to sink or become unstable. Additionally, people near the engine can lose consciousness from inhaling carbon monoxide. The gas is odorless and colorless, so the victim may not even know they have been exposed. Even strong swimmers can become disoriented or succumb to the undertow.

Drowning can also occur when boaters consume alcohol, impairing their judgment and balance. In one case, the victim drowned after being thrown overboard when the operator crashed the boat into a bridge. 

The alleged boat operator had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, thrice the legal limit. Section 50-21-112 of the South Carolina Boating and Safety Act of 1999 prohibits anyone from operating the boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

You should follow proper safety procedures to prevent drowning and submersion accidents in recreational boats. That includes wearing life jackets, avoiding alcohol consumption, and ensuring the appropriate maintenance and loading of the vessel.

Collision with another vessel or object

Collisions with other vessels or objects cause boating emergencies. They account for over 50 percent of all boating injuries and 13 percent of deaths in 2021.

Collisions have different types. Side collisions happen you hit the side of another vessel. A bow-on crash happens when two boats hit each other head-on. Stern collisions occur when one vessel hits the rear of another ship. Lastly, an allision occurs when a boat hits a bridge or object other than another water vessel.

Collisions can occur in recreational boats due to various factors, including the following:

Operator error: Mistakes can be due to inattention, improper speed, failure to maintain a proper lookout, and alcohol or drug impairment.

Navigation errors: Misreading charts, getting lost, or failing to interpret navigational markers correctly can lead to collisions with other vessels or objects.

Mechanical failure: When the steering or engine fails, it can cause the operator to lose control of the boat and result in a collision. Regular and proper maintenance and inspections can help prevent mechanical failures.

Environmental factors: High waves, strong currents, and stormy weather can cause boats to veer into other vessels or objects. Boaters should check the weather forecast before heading out and be ready for sudden changes in conditions.

Equipment failure: Boat equipment failures, such as inoperable navigation lights or radar, can make it hard for other boaters to see you. The lack of visibility can increase the risk of collisions.

On June 17, 2022,  a side collision case in Key Biscayne, Florida, resulted in the deaths of two people. Ten survived, although two sustained life-threatening injuries. Investigators have not disclosed the cause of the accident.

Falls overboard

Falls overboard are the leading cause of drowning in recreational boating accidents. People often fall into the water because they lose their balance. It could be due to rough seas or high winds, so checking the weather forecast before heading out is critical.

Sometimes, the driver’s behavior, such as weaving or speeding, can lead to forcible ejection from the boat. Equipment failures such as breaking ropes and rigging can also cause falls overboard.

Slippery surfaces and lack of situational awareness can also lead to falling out of the vessel. If you are intoxicated, you are more likely to do something reckless such as climbing over the railing.

A man on a cruise ship fell overboard just before Thanksgiving in 2022. The Coast Guard Auxiliary conducted a search and rescue and found him nearly 24 hours after he was last seen on board. According to a cruise line representative, the only way the man could’ve fallen overboard is if he had climbed the rails.

Boat operators and passengers should be aware of the risks of recreational boating. They should always wear a life jacket in case they fall overboard. Stay alert, be mindful, and secure all equipment correctly.

Fire or explosion

Fires or explosions on a recreational boat are not common, but they can happen. It could be due to faulty wiring, overloaded circuits, or improper use of cooking equipment. Some vessels carry gasoline and other flammable materials that could ignite if not stored properly. However, fuel leaks and fumes in the engine compartment are the most common cause of a boat fire or explosion.

A recent accident in New York involved a leaking propane tank in a sailboat. It exploded and destroyed the vessel, prompting a nearby yacht owner to call for help. Rescuers found the badly hurt boat owner in the wreckage. Fortunately, he survived the incident.

Weather-related emergencies

Bad weather can lead to collisions, capsizing, and falls overboard. Boaters should avoid heading out when the weather forecasts are unfavorable. Operator inexperience, lack of safety equipment, and equipment failure can also contribute to weather-related boat emergencies.

Even larger vessels can be affected by the weather. The capsizing of the Seacor liftboat that led to the death of 13 people was due to hurricane-level winds. A report investigating the incident identified the culprit as flawed weather warning systems.

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Preventing Boating Fatalities

Recreational boating is fun, but it can go south quickly. You can prevent accidents by following basic boating safety measures. The following sections discuss the various safety measures designed to minimize boating emergencies.

Safety devices and equipment

The safety of passengers is the responsibility of boat operators. They should have the following safety devices and equipment on board.

Life jackets: Statistics show that most people who drown in boating accidents were not wearing life jackets. Boaters should provide properly fitting life jackets for every passenger and ensure they wear them on board. The boat should also have a flotation device like a life ring.

Navigation and communication equipment: Boats should have charts, a compass, and a GPS to keep them on course while on the water. They can also be helpful when sending a distress call, as you can provide rescuers with your precise location.

It would be best if you also had a VHF radio on board to get updates on the weather and communicate with other boats. You can also use it to send a mayday to the Coast Guard.

Sound signaling device: Sounds carry over water, so a horn, whistle, or other sound makers should be available to signal your presence to other boats. Sound-signaling devices can help you avoid collisions and help rescuers find you.

Fire extinguishers: Fires are uncommon in boats, but you should be able to put one out when it happens. You should have at least one marine-grade fire extinguisher on board and inspect them regularly. The bottle should have a label stating “Marine Type – USCG Approved.”

Flares: Flares are visual distress signals that can help rescuers find you within a wide radius, especially at night. Have a good supply of them on board, and keep them in a waterproof container.

Beacons: A beacon is a passive and continuous signal to bring search and rescue teams to your location. Your boat should have an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB. However, it won’t help anyone who falls overboard. It would help if you always had a personal locator beacon (PLB) on your person while on a boat.

First aid kit: Ensure you have a first aid kit on board to treat minor cuts and injuries. It should have the basics such as bandages, saline solution, burn ointment, and antiseptics. You should also include seasickness medication and sting relief ointment.

Anchor and anchor line: An anchor can help stabilize the boat in rough weather and keep the ship in place if your engine fails. Ensure that your anchor line is of sufficient length for the depth of water you plan to travel.

Safety education and training

Operator error or inexperience is among the leading causes of recreational boating emergencies. Anyone operating a watercraft should take a boat safety course to reduce the risk of injuries or death. You can take training courses from the following organizations:

US Coast Guard Auxiliary: The Coast Guard Auxiliary offers boating safety courses for boaters of all experience levels. The training covers navigation, seamanship, boating safety equipment, and more.

US Power Squadrons: You can also check out the programs at the US Power Squadrons focused on boating safety and education. Aside from essential topics, they also offer advanced courses for experienced boaters.

National Safe Boating Council: The National Safe Boating Council is a non-profit organization. It offers boating safety training on life jacket use, emergency preparedness, and safe boating practices.

BoatUS Foundation: The BoatUS Foundation provides free boating courses specific to each state. It also offers online courses, on-water training, and more. The courses cover boating safety equipment, navigation, and emergency procedures.

Many states provide safety training programs for boat operations, ranging from online courses to classroom training. Check your state’s website for boating safety programs.

Federal and state boating regulations

The federal government codifies the requirements for recreational boating safety under 46 USC 131 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). It sets out requirements for maintaining navigation and safety equipment on board. 

These guidelines include charts, instruments, firefighting equipment, and personal flotation devices (PFDs). It also outlines requirements for safety drills, vessel stability, and vessel loading and unloading procedures.

Violations can result in penalties like fines, imprisonment, or revocation of the vessel’s certificate of inspection or registration. The specific penalties depend on the violation’s nature, severity, and previous breaches by the operator.

Chapter 23 of the code describes the general requirements of operating a water vessel, including duties to assist at sea and report accidents. Section 2302 outlines the criminal and civil penalties for the negligent operation of a boat if it results in injury or death.

While federal law provides broad strokes for recreational boating safety, state statutes provide the specifics. For example, 33 CFR Part 95 sets the standard for operating under the influence (OUI) of alcohol or drugs. It also requires operators to submit to chemical testing when requested and imposes penalties for violators.

However, Section 95.025 provides that state-mandated standards for OUI will apply when available. Most states have laws that follow the federal blood alcohol content (BAC) threshold of 0.08 for legal intoxication. 

Two examples are Section 33-13-108.1 of the Colorado Revised Statutes and Section 63-4210.8 of the Oklahoma Statutes. However, Section 15-133 of the General Statutes of Connecticut mandates a BAC threshold of 0.02 for boat operators under 21.

Federal and state boating regulations aim to prevent a boating emergency through fines and penalties. However, boating safety is primarily a matter of personal responsibility. For instance, wearing a life jacket can keep people from drowning, yet most opt not to wear one.

Boat operators should also leave a float plan with marina personnel, friend, or family member. It is a written outline of the route and destination, the departure and return times, and the vessel’s make and model. It will enable authorities to locate the boater in an emergency or if they fail to return as scheduled.

Did you know?

Lifeboats are typically bright orange because it provides visibility and contrasts with the blue sea, making them easier to spot. It was first blue in the 1800s, then red, white, and blue in the 1950s before it became orange.

Mayday Call for Fatal Boating Emergencies

Most boating emergency fatalities are preventable when boaters act responsibly. Conversely, it’s devastating when somebody dies due to someone else’s reckless or negligent behavior. If you lose a loved one under these circumstances, you can file a wrongful death suit against the liable parties. A boat accident lawyer can help you hold them responsible.

Visit The Personal Injury Center for more information. We can educate you on your rights to compensation in wrongful death claims. We can also match you with an experienced boat accident lawyer or law firm in your area. Book a free consultation now!

Unsafe boating practices can turn a pleasure cruise into a tragedy. Visit The Personal Injury Center to learn your legal options in fatal boating emergencies.

FAQs on Boating Emergencies That Cause the Most Fatalities

Generally, no one is liable for weather-related boating accidents. They are force majeure cases, meaning they could not be predicted or controlled by anyone. However, the boat owner or operator may be liable if they fail to exercise reasonable precautions.

In some cases, the boat manufacturer may be liable if they fail to provide a warning about the vessel's limitations under specific weather conditions. Suppose the accident was due to the failure of navigation equipment. In that case, the equipment manufacturer may be liable.

The damages for wrongful death in a boating accident include economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages include medical and funeral expenses, lost wages and benefits, and other financial losses.

Non-economic damages include emotional distress, pain and suffering, and loss of companionship. If the victim cared for others, the damages might consider the loss of care, guidance, and nurturing. Sometimes, the court may award punitive damages to punish the liable party for their conduct.

It's easy to panic when someone falls overboard, but jumping in heedlessly can endanger both of you. Before anything else, shut off the boat's engine and throw a life ring to the person to buy some time.

Maneuver the boat so you can get close enough to help them get back on board with a rope or ladder. If necessary, jump in the water, but wear a life jacket. Head for shore as soon as possible and call ahead using a cell phone or VHF marine radio. The call is to ensure the person gets immediate medical attention.