May 27, 2021
The year 2020 was a deadly one in Texas, and not just from the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the state.
Officials with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department say that the year was also the deadliest on record for state waterways. And with the unofficial first weekend of summer boating season kicking off this Memorial Day holiday, TPWD is sending its game wardens out in force to try and turn the state's aquatic playgrounds back into safer venues.
"Texas game wardens will be out in full force Memorial Day weekend to ensure the public enjoys their time on the water responsibly, however, we need boaters to ensure they are taking safety seriously, too," said Cody Jones, assistant commander for marine enforcement at TPWD, in an agency news release.
Officials note that most water-safety problems happen between May and August, with weekends being the worst offenders.
That helped fuel a horrible year in 2020 when, according to TPWD, boating accidents in the Lone Star State were at a 30-year high. Fatalities on Texas waterways increased 45 percent over the previous year, fatal accidents on the water rose by 61 percent, and overall, accidents on the water were up 67 percent. Not surprisingly, injuries were also terribly high last year, up by 64 percent.
Boating Deaths Up in 2020
This is the 50th anniversary of Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, and the National Safe Boating Council, which sponsors National Safe Boating Week (May 22-28), says around 12 million recreational boats are registered in the U.S. In 2019, the council’s most recent data, 613 people died in boating accidents in the U.S. The top five primary contributing factors in accidents are operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and alcohol.
According to U.S. Coast Guard stats, 86 percent of known drowning victims in boating accidents were not wearing a life jacket in 2019.
"The 2020 recreational boating season saw an increase of boating accidents and deaths," the Coast Guard said in a boating-safety news release. "Nationwide, recreational boating accidents that resulted in death exceeded 2019 by 24 percent. The months of June, July and August specifically saw the highest rate of on-water deaths from recreational boating in 23 years."
As Texas and the rest of the nation continue to emerge from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lone Star State authorities don't want a repeat performance of 2020, which had 55 boating fatalities. Not surprisingly, many of those injuries and deaths came from open motorboats and personal watercrafts, the two primary staples of summer boating season.
State officials also point out that while 2020 was historically bad, 2021 isn't off to a good start so far, either. In fact, from January through April this year, Texas has experienced a 40-percent increase in open water-oriented fatalities, according to TPWD. That includes both boating and swimming incidents.
While the news from a year ago was terrible, it likely won’t take too much change to begin pushing the trend in the other direction according to TPWD.
"Most of the deaths and serious injuries that occurred in Texas waters last year were preventable by following a few simple, important steps – including using the safety ignition cut-off switch (ECOS) and wearing life jackets," Jones said.
Life jackets, always one of the bedrock principles of boating and water safety, need to be worn even if you’re in a craft that doesn’t have a motor, something like a canoe, a kayak, or a paddleboard.
It’s smart, for starters. And having a life jacket in your vessel for each occupant is also the law.
"According to Texas state law, a life jacket must be available for each occupant of a boat or paddle craft," said Kimberly Sorensen, TPWD’s boating education manager. "Children who are under the age of 13 are required to wear a life vest while on the boat or when the paddle craft is underway or drifting."
The National Safe Boating Council recommends these tips for boaters:
- Take a boating safety course. Gain valuable knowledge and on-water experience in a boating safety course with many options for novice to experienced boaters. 70% of deaths were on boats where the operator had no boating safety instruction.
- Check equipment. Schedule a free vessel safety check with local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadrons to make sure all essential equipment is present, working and in good condition.
- Make a float plan. Always let someone on shore know the trip itinerary, including operator and passenger information, boat type and registration, and communication equipment on board.
- Wear a life jacket. Make sure everyone wears a life jacket – every time. A stowed life jacket is no use in an emergency.
- Use an engine cut-off device – it’s the law. An engine cut-off device, or engine cut-off switch, is a proven safety device to stop the boat’s engine should the operator unexpectedly fall overboard.
- Watch the weather. Always check the forecast before departing on the water and frequently during the excursion.
- Know what’s going on around you at all times. Nearly a quarter of all reported boating accidents in 2019 were caused by operator inattention or improper lookout.
- Know where you’re going and travel at safe speeds. Be familiar with the area, local boating speed zones and always travel at a safe speed.
- Never boat under the influence. A BUI is involved in one-third of all recreational boating fatalities. Always designate a sober skipper.
- Keep in touch. Have more than one communication device that works when wet. VHF radios, emergency locator beacons, satellite phones, and cell phones can all be important devices in an emergency.
Put On That Life Jacket
As more and more people got outdoors during the pandemic last year, that last idea of kids and PFDs was particularly problematic, according to TPWD. In fact, the agency says that in 2020, Texas game wardens issued 641 citations for children not wearing a life jacket, a figure that was up 11 percent from the previous year. All told, TPWD wardens issued 1,821 citations for insufficient life jackets onboard, a figure that was up 26 percent from 2019.
Since boating mishaps can occur in a millisecond, the agency also notes that just simply having the legally required number of PFDs on board your boat, personal watercraft, or paddle craft isn’t enough.
"Drowning is the highest reported cause of death in boating fatalities," said Sorensen. "Most victims are found not wearing a lifejacket. Simply stowing your life jacket on the boat is inadequate. Accidents on the water can happen quickly leaving insufficient time to put on a life jacket when most needed. For everyone’s safety, wear your life jacket and ensure others wear theirs at all times when on the water."
Safe boating also means refraining from the mix of alcohol and fun time on the water or going out fishing and drinking at the same time.
That deadly mixture is a principal driver in the high boating accident and fatality rates from any year, and game wardens will be especially vigilant this summer to find those operating a boat while under the influence. In Texas and many other states, operating a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a criminal offense that can lead to fines, the loss of a driver’s license, and deadly consequences on the water.
With thunderstorms and heavy rains in the forecast for some parts of the country this Memorial Day weekend, also checking the weather before heading out and being aware that high-water levels could conceal objects unsafely below the water's edge will be key this weekend. So too is making sure your boat and safety equipment is ready to go, making sure you have waterproof communication abilities, knowing the rules of waterways, and just simply being aware.
Many of those things above are just common sense to seasoned boaters and anglers, but if a person didn’t grow up around lakes, rivers, or saltwater, they may not be readily apparent to everyone. That’s where boater safety education comes in according to TPWD.
While the idea of taking a boater safety course might draw a yawn in some circles, state officials point out that of the accidents and fatalities recorded last year, more than 60 percent of the boat operators involved had not completed the state’s mandated boater safety course.
As a reminder, TPWD says that in order to operate a personal watercraft or a boat with a 15-horsepower rating or more, anyone born on or after Sept. 1, 1993, must complete a boater education course. Paddlers also need safety education, and opportunities to take both courses can be found by visiting the agency’s boater education web page.