June 28, 2023
The Fourth of July holiday means a four-day weekend for many this year, a chance to enjoy family, friends, food, fireworks and maybe fishing, too. Much fun will be spent on the water in a boat, paddle craft or personal watercraft.
Yes, this is an article on boating safety, and I’ll admit that sometimes these stories don’t always strike a chord with fun-speakers. We’ve heard it all before, those safety rules that show up from game and fish agencies during summer holiday weekends: wear your life jacket, don’t drink and drive a boat, watch out for storms and lightning, etc.
We shouldn’t tune out the safety messaging, because every year families across the country are impacted as boating safety turns from a news release into a real-life tragedy.
Just a few weeks ago prior to the Memorial Day holiday weekend, this truth was driven home in my backyard when a kayaker in North Texas went missing on Bonham City Lake, or Lake Bonham as many know it, a 1,020-acre water body located just more than an hour to the northeast of Dallas. When authorities later discovered the kayaker’s body in the lake, he reportedly wasn’t wearing a life jacket, according to TV news station KXII.
That story of tragic loss wasn’t the only one in Texas as May ran its course, including the Memorial Day weekend. Elsewhere in the state over that weekend, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department noted that while accident numbers were down compared to last year, citations, warnings and arrests were up.
The agency said 358 game wardens conducted 12,141 vessel checks across Texas, 19 percent more than in 2022. They also responded to 13 accidents, two boating fatalities and two drownings. The two boating fatalities occurred at Choke Canyon and the Neches River and the two drownings occurred at Toledo Bend and Lake Halbert.
"Although the weekend was relatively safe, unfortunately deaths and drownings still occurred," said Texas Game Warden Colonel Chad Jones, in a TPWD news release. "Our sorrow and sympathy are with the family and friends of the victims as well as the game wardens who assisted in their rescue and recovery. We are proud that more people are aware of and practicing safe boating techniques, but we must continue to educate the public so everyone returns home safely.”
The Boating Safety Seven
The National Safe Boating Campaign is a worldwide effort focused on responsible boating led by the National Safe Boating Council, which offers numerous free resources to encourage responsible boating. Your on-the-water safety begins with these seven tips:
- Wear your life jacket
- Take a boating safety class
- Carry all required safety gear
- Use your engine cut-off switch
- File a float plan
- Be aware of weather and water conditions
- Boat sober, and be considerate of others
Like so many of their DNR counterparts across the nation as the fun of summertime continues, TPWD’s boating safety message centers around the wearing of a life jacket. In fact, the agency says that in 2022, drowning accounted for 50 percent of deaths on the water and was the leading cause of death in recreational boating fatalities. Of those, TPWD notes that 69 percent of the victims were not wearing a life jacket.
"Life jackets are one of the easiest, most accessible tools to prevent fatalities,” said TPWD Game Warden Assistant Commander for Marine Enforcement Cody Jones. "If an accident occurs, it is unlikely you will have time to find a life jacket and secure it properly, so it’s best to wear one at all times when on the water."
That truth was echoed just the other day by one of Texas’ top fly fishing guides, Alvin Dedeaux, who owns All Water Guides and guides on the Colorado River and the Gulf of Mexico each year. The Orvis-endorsed guide’s most recent YouTube video dealt with the idea of the "Most Important Gear on the Boat." Dedeaux, who has guided thousands of trips over the years, says without question it’s the PFD.
Dedeaux doesn’t work for TPWD, isn’t paid to do life jacket commercials and has no real reason to do a somber lifejacket video. Except for the fact, as he quietly notes, that as an everyday on-the-water guide, he’s tragically seen drowning victims lying lifeless on a boat ramp.
"I'm really surprised at how many professional fishing guides, people who spend lots of time on the water, really smart people, don't wear them," he said. "Some people say they're hot, they're restrictive, I know how to swim. All those are really poor excuses."
Dedeaux makes sure that clients have them on when his rigs are underway.
"The thing is, nobody plans on having an accident," said Dedeaux. "Nobody plans on ending up out of the boat. It's an accident and usually, if something happens, you're not going to have time to grab your life jacket on your way out of the boat."
I'm a big fan of Dedeaux, his humble demeanor and fun personality, his cool expertise in all things fly fishing in Texas, and his awesome instructional videos. And to hear him say that he believes a PFD is the most important thing on his boats, that's saying something because he didn’t have to do that.
Top 10 States By Recreational Boating Accidents
From the National Safe Boating Council (Statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2022 Recreational Boating Statistics)
- Florida (712 accidents; 65 deaths)
- California (387 accidents; 42 deaths)
- Texas (201 accidents; 30 deaths)
- South Carolina (154 accidents; 24 deaths)
- North Carolina (152 accidents; 22 deaths)
- New York (143 accidents; 20 deaths)
- Missouri (126 accidents; 11 deaths)
- Ohio (124 accidents; 12 deaths)
- Maryland (119 accidents; 17 deaths)
- Tennessee (116 accidents; 24 deaths)
Without question, there are other boating safety considerations to keep in mind over the long weekend as Independence Day approaches. Recently, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources put its own spin on the topic with a news release.
While not an exhaustive list, it includes such ideas as alcohol and safe boating don’t mix (my late friend Raymond Copley used to say that “He who goes forth on the Fourth with a fifth seldom comes forth on the Fifth”); being sure to check for open ramps and water hazards prior to heading out; making sure that the trailer lights, wheel bearings and the hitch are functioning properly on your trailer before a trip; ensuring that there is a current fire extinguisher and horn/whistle aboard; filing a float plan alerting others of where you’re going, what time you’ll return, and what type of watercraft you’ll be operating; and taking a boater education course if you haven’t already done so.
But as important as all of that may be, and it is, everything above gets eclipsed by the biggest cornerstone truth of boating safety that anyone can speak of.
What’s that, you ask? The Iowa DNR says simply to wear a life jacket—it floats, you don’t.