According to statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard, there are around 700 boating fatalities every year in the United States. The vast majority of these deaths, approximately 550 per year, are caused by drowning. Other major causes include traumatic injury from collisions, fires, falls overboard, and general boating accidents. However, drowning remains the leading cause of death by far in boating incidents.
Drowning can occur very quickly during a boating emergency, especially if proper flotation devices are not worn. Within seconds, a person who falls into the water without a lifejacket can go underwater. Strong currents, waves, and other factors also contribute to drowning by making it difficult to keep one’s head above water. Hypothermia from cold water temperatures accelerates the drowning process as well. Understanding the dynamics of drowning and how to prevent it is crucial for staying safe on the water.
Drowning and Submersion
There are several types of boating emergencies that frequently lead to drowning and submersion underwater. Capsizing or overturning of the vessel is one of the most common events, instantly putting all passengers at risk of drowning if they do not have flotation devices or hold onto the boat. Robust safety features like sealed bulkheads on larger boats can aid survival, but smaller open craft are especially susceptible to capsizing incidents.
Falls overboard are another primary cause of drowning. Losing one’s balance, being ejected from the boat during sudden maneuvers, climbing on railings and falling, or rough waves knocking someone off the deck can all cause a perilous fall into open water. Intoxication is also a major contributing factor in falls overboard that lead to drowning.
Boating accidents such as collisions with other boats, running aground, or impact with floating or underwater objects can also plunge passengers into the water without warning. Sudden swamping or flooding of the deck from large waves or hull damage may make the boat unable to float, forcing occupants into the water.
In all cases where submersion occurs, the first key to survival is wearing a properly fitted life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD). According to USCG statistics, over 80% of drowning victims in recreational boating accidents were not wearing a PFD. The availability of life jackets onboard does little good if boaters do not actually wear them while on the water. Wearing a PFD ensures a degree of buoyancy to keep one’s head above water and prevents early exhaustion and unconsciousness.
Collisions with Other Vessels or Objects
While drowning is the most frequent cause of death in boating accidents, traumatic injuries caused by collisions are a major source of mortality as well. The Coast Guard estimates collisions account for approximately 15% of total boating fatalities annually.
Collisions generally occur due to operator inattention, excessive speed, improper lookout practices, ignoring navigation rules, mechanical issues with steering or propulsion, or adverse weather conditions. Vessels can collide with other recreational boats, large commercial ships, piers and docks, shoals, submerged rocks, debris, or other objects.
Impact with a vessel or object can cause severe blunt force trauma from the force of the collision. Occupants may be thrown about or even ejected from the boat entirely. Injuries like traumatic brain injury, organ damage, and spinal cord injury occur which require prompt medical treatment to have any chance of survival.
Without fast rescue in the event of a collision, injured passengers are also at high risk of drowning, especially if in shock or knocked unconscious. Wearing a life jacket helps keep victims’ heads above water during the post-collision period where drowning is likely.
Falls overboard into open water continue to be a serious boating hazard, accounting for about 10-15% of recreational boating fatalities per year according to statistics. Situational awareness and safe practices are essential for avoiding potentially deadly falls.
Some common causes of falls include losing one’s balance while standing or walking on a boat, improper weight shifting, being ejected after hitting waves or wakes at high speed, climbing on high boat rails and falling, water spray making surfaces slippery, and mobility issues.
Alcohol is the leading contributory factor in fatal falls overboard. Consuming alcohol significantly impairs balance, reaction time, vision, and decision making. With even moderate intoxication levels, slipping, tripping, or losing balance is far more likely.
Several factors influence survival after falling overboard. Hypothermia can set in rapidly, within minutes in cold water. And without a PFD, immediate drowning is highly likely. Strong currents, high waves, and obstructed visibility all hamper the ability to stay afloat. The person overboard must also signal the boat operator and avoid injuries when being pulled from the water.
Simply being aware of proper footwear, handholds, and maintaining low centers of gravity can help avoid falling. But wearing a secured life jacket provides maximum protection against drowning for yourself or others if they fall overboard. Having rescue equipment like ring buoys and ropes ready for deployment aids rescue as well.
In summary, drowning is by far the leading cause of fatalities in recreational boating incidents, accounting for over 80% of deaths annually. Capsizing, falls overboard, collisions, and boating accidents can all suddenly put occupants in the water at risk of drowning without proper safety preparations.
The number one preventive measure all boaters should take is to always wear a properly fitted life jacket or PFD while on deck. Make certain there are enough PFDs onboard for all passengers and that they are in good condition. Other important safety steps include boating sober, being aware of weather conditions, taking a safe boating course, and making sure your vessel is well-maintained and equipped for emergencies.
Following basic safe boating practices will help prevent the vast majority of drowning deaths and make time spent on the water more pleasant. Please boat responsibly so that you and your passengers stay safe on your next maritime adventure! Let me know if you have any other questions.