Accident & Safety Reports


National Canoe Safety Patrol




10 Lessons From the USCG's 2009 Accident Report - 09/01/2010

This year's USCG accident report for 2009 is a treasure trove of insight as to what causes
boating accidents and fatalities, and by inference, how to avoid such calamities -- and we
draw 10 important lessons from the data. Less than 2% of fatalities (just 14) were due to
equipment or engine failure, which means that the remaining causes for 98% of last year's
736 boating fatalities rest primarily with the boat operators in one way or another.

Capsizing in a small boat is the single biggest hazard. Overloading and improper loading are
primary causes of this calamity.

Much is made each year by the USCG, the Power Squadrons, other boating groups and media
sources, including this publication, of boating accidents. These organizations all do it to
advance operator awareness in hopes of reducing boating accidents and fatalities. Based on
the 2009 USCG Accident Statistics that were released last month, we can only conclude that
these efforts are generally successful as boating fatalities are 40% lower for boats per
100,000 registered vehicles, than for a like number of automobiles.

In 2008 there were 14.5 deaths per 100,000 registered automobiles vs. just 5.8 deaths in
2009 per 100,000 registered boats. And while the comparisons might be quite different if
operating hours or miles traveled were compared, the fact remains that boating is a
relatively safe sport compared to riding in the family automobile.

Last year there were 12.7 million registered boats, including canoes, kayaks and dinghies,
4,730 reported accidents, and 736 fatalities.

Here are what we feel are the 10 most important lessons learned--

1. Any accident could be lethal.

15.5% (1 in 6) of reported boating accidents result in a death. Over the last 13 years the
number of reported accidents has dropped by 40% and reported injuries have dropped 24%, but
the number of deaths have remained about the same. This leads us to believe that boaters are
now reporting only the more serious accidents. Nevertheless, life is a delicate thing, and
any boating accident has the potential for disaster.

2. Stay out of the water.

73.7% of boating deaths are the direct result of drowning. It seems obvious, but staying
inside the vessel is probably the most important thing any boater can do to stay alive. 85%
of the 543 drowning victims were in boats 26' or smaller, including canoes, kayaks, dinghies
and PWCs.

Only three people died in 2009 as a direct result of the boat they were on sinking. Only
five died as the result of fire or an explosion, and only one died of CO exposure.

This statistic is why the USCG is constantly harping on wearing PFDs. Most people who wear
them and end up in the water survive. And most of the people in the water who drown, aren't
wearing them.

3. PFDs save lives.

Only 1.6% of drowning victims were 12 or under. Because children 12 and under are required
to wear PFDs, most do, and as a result they survive when thrown in the water when their
parents without PFDs do not. Of the 9 children 12 and under who drowned in 2009, most were
not wearing PFDs. The PFD laws for kids are working! They could do the same for adults if
they would only wear them.

4. Avoid collisions with boats and objects of any kind.

16.5% of boating deaths were the direct result of a collision with something. We often joke
about a collision at sea ruining one's whole day, but it is no laughing matter. And while
collisions with other recreational vessels was the leading cause of death in this category
(52), it was followed closely by hitting a fixed object (41). 13 deaths were caused by
hitting a submerged object and another 13 people died because a commercial vessel was hit.

Together these two causes of death -- drowning and collision -- account for over 90% of all
boating fatalities. By staying inside the boat, keeping dry, and avoiding a collision with
anything, boaters can avoid nearly all watersports tragedies.

4. Be extra careful on small outboard boats.

53.3% of boating deaths occurred to people in "open motorboats." This statistic is not a
surprise. These are the types of boats that are most likely to be overloaded, improperly
loaded, and are the easiest to capsize. They are the most vulnerable to bad weather or rough
sea conditions, and have the least protection in case of a collision. It means that
operators of motorboats under 20' need to be particularly aware of what they are doing and
of their surroundings. Unfortunately, this is where we find the most inexperienced boaters
because this type of boat is generally where new-comers enter the sport.

5. Capsizing is the single biggest danger.

40.5% of fatalities were due to capsizing, flooding or swamping. Most boats that capsize are
under 26'. All of the safety precautions taken by the designers and builders of large
powerboats to prevent capsize is paying off as only three boats in 2009 over 40' capsized,
and of those only one was over 65.' Small boats can capsize even in flat conditions, so this
possibility should be uppermost in a skipper's mind.

6. Don't fool with Mother Nature.

The leading "contributing factor" to boating fatalities was weather and water conditions --
24%. There is a reason why we have special VHF radio channels for 24/7 weather broadcasts
and the USCG issues small craft warnings. Small, open boats are vulnerable because of their
low freeboard and ability to easily ship large quantities of water faster than they can
discharge it. Weather, overloading, swamping and the inevitable capsize are the Bermuda
Triangle of small open boats. Weather and hazardous water conditions were primary
contributing factors to 178 boating deaths last year.

Alcohol ranked #2 as a "primary" contributing factor, and the USCG reported that it was the
primary factor in 120 deaths.

7. Be alert!

"Operator Inattention" ranks #1 as a primary "contributing factor" to 2009's boat accidents.
When driving an automobile virtually everyone is aware that even a moment of inattention can
-- and usually does -- end up in an accident. However, many boaters tend to be complacent
about their responsibilities as the vehicle operator. After all, the boat is only going 20
mph and there are not many other boats on the water, goes the thinking.

When "operator inattention" is combined with "improper lookout," about 25% of the accidents
last year can be accounted for. Combine those two factors with "operator inexperience" and
you have the three contributing factors in over 1/3rd of the boating accidents.

8. Being close to land doesn't make things safer.

89.4% of all boating deaths took place in "protected water." As much as we all consider
oceans, gulfs and the Great Lakes as the bodies of water that we must be most careful about,
the fact is that most fatalities occur in what we consider to be "protected water." 44.8%
(330) of all boat deaths in 2009 happened in lakes (not the Great Lakes), ponds, reservoirs,
and gravel pits, according to the USCG.

Another 30% (221) of the tragedies took place in "rivers, streams, creeks, swamps and
bayous" -- not places where most boaters would feel threatened. Finally, 14.5% (107) of
deaths took place in "bays, inlets, marinas, sounds, harbors, channels, canals, sloughs, and
coves." While bays and sounds can be quite large, the fact remains that most fatal boating
accidents happen close to shore, not on the high seas.

Only 10.6% of 2009 recreational marine fatalities were reported to have happened in the
oceans, gulfs or the Great Lakes.

9. Speed doesn't kill, people do.

58% of all fatalities took place in vessels traveling less than 20 mph. Most boaters are
rightly apprehensive about high-speed motorboats being driven by less than adequate
skippers, but in 2009 only 1.6% (12) of the fatalities were involved with boats going 40 mph
or faster.

10. Build your sea time.

86% of fatal accidents involve operators with under 500 hours of experience. On the subject
of boater experience, the USCG had information on only 400 of the 736 fatal accidents.
However, assuming that the experience of the operators in the other cases had the same
distribution as the 400, it means that lack of boating experience is probably the biggest
problem of all when it comes to accidents. Indeed, only 7.7% of the operators involved in
the fatal accidents had 500 hours or more of boating experience.

75.6% of the operators of boats involved in fatal accidents had not taken a boating course
of any kind!

There is simply no substitute for getting sea-time. Even if you are not the skipper, you can
learn valuable lessons being a passenger. Pay attention to what the helmsman is doing and
learn from it, both from what is being done correctly and incorrectly.