Boating deaths in Maryland have reached their highest level in more than a decade, with 20 so far this year. But authorities say they can't find any explanation for the increase other than nice summer weather.

"Boating is a recreational activity, and when the weather is good and conducive to boating, we're going to find a lot more activity," said Sgt. Art Windemuth, spokesman for the Natural Resources Police.

But Windemuth said insufficient attention to safety has also been a factor. Life jackets weren't worn by 18 of the 20 people who died, he said, and alcohol was involved in some cases.

The deaths don't fit a discernible pattern, he said, with some people falling overboard while drinking and others slipping into the water while boating alone. The locations range from the Gunpowder River in Baltimore County to the lower reaches of the Chesapeake Bay.

One thing the accidents share in common is that they all could have been prevented, said Chris Edmonston, an Annapolis resident who is president of the nonprofit BoatUS Foundation.

"Just a little bit more forethought and more careful planning would go a long way in keeping some of these people alive," he said.

Since 2001, Maryland has averaged around 13 boating accident fatalities a year, according to state statistics. The low point was 2006, with eight, while the previous high was 17 deaths, in 2009.

The year's latest boating-related death came Thursday afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County.

William Thomas Cole, 42, of North Beach was jumping waves on a 10-foot personal watercraft south of the North Beach fishing pier when he was knocked into the water. He yelled for help but was swallowed by breaking waves and was later found unconscious, an NRP news release said. Windemuth said the incident remains under investigation.

Cole was wearing a life jacket when he died, authorities said. The only other fatality victim who was wearing a life jacket was 14-year-old Olivia Constants, who died June 23 during sailing lessons in the Severn River. Her harness became entangled in rigging after her boat capsized, Windemuth said.

In Anne Arundel County on Wednesday, NRP officers recovered the body of a missing boater from Tenthouse Creek. The victim, 52-year-old Dean Dixon of Harwood, last spoke to his family by cellphone the previous morning while crabbing. His unoccupied boat was spotted that afternoon.

Earlier this month in Ocean City, Jordan Craig Hock, 23, died after falling from a 24-foot pontoon boat in Assawoman Bay.

Hock had been on the bow, his feet in the water, while the boat motored along in the early evening hours of Aug. 6. After he fell in, several people on the boat searched unsuccessfully for him, and his body was recovered the next morning.

Alcohol was involved, and the investigation continues, Windemuth said. He said riding on the bow is not only dangerous, it's a violation of Maryland boating laws. "When you do that type of behavior and fall off, there is only one place to go, and that is under the boat," he said.

Edmonston said one challenge for veteran boaters is to avoid growing complacent on the water.

"Many boaters who did die had what I would characterize as plenty of boating experience," he said. "I would say that gives you a false sense of security."

Despite this year's rise, boating deaths nationwide are much lower now than in past decades. Even as recently as the 1990s, the numbers of fatalities were two to three times higher than now, Edmonston said.

Among the factors credited with saving lives are improved manufacturing standards, education and tougher laws against boating while intoxicated.

Edmonston does not think this year's experience indicates the start of a trend in Maryland. He sees it as an anomaly.

"I would imagine next year it could be the complete opposite," he said.

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

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