Maryland Natural Resources Police will be stepping up patrols this weekend in an attempt to curb drunken boating and the number of maritime fatalities, which threatens to exceed a 10-year high reached in 2009.
Eleven boaters have died in Maryland waters so far this year. By comparison, the state didn't record its fourth boating-related death last year until June 24.
"We're way above where we should be," said NRP Sgt. Art Windemuth.
Operation Dry Water, an annual anti-drug and alcohol enforcement effort, will run from Friday through Sunday.
"In Maryland last year, six of 13 fatalities involved alcohol," said Windemuth. "We had 104 alcohol-related incidents, 22 injuries and 169 arrests. This weekend, with the help of a Coast Guard grant, we will put on extra patrols on all navigable waters, from Deep Creek Lake to the Atlantic Ocean."
By Coast Guard definitions, three of Maryland's 11 fatalities this year didn't fall under the strict definition of a boating fatality, said Windemuth. To qualify, the victim must be on a boat that is underway. So, for example, the accident on June 8 near Chestertown, in which a man drowned after he jumped off an anchored fishing boat while attempting to save his nephew, wouldn't be counted by the Coast Guard.
But that doesn't make NRP's recovery effort less difficult or lessen the pain felt by family and friends, Windemuth said.
"I have been at the scene of some of these accidents," he said. "To see a parent or a loved one waiting on shore for recovery, when everyone knows the chance of survival is slim, watching the pain and anguish in their eyes, is difficult for everyone concerned."
The National Safe Boating Council ranks Maryland third in boating accidents behind only Florida and California; however, the state does not make the top 10 in fatalities. Maryland boating deaths peaked in 1979 at 37 and over the last decade Maryland has averaged a dozen deaths a year. In 2009, 17 people died, making it the deadliest year since 2000.
Ironically, the increase in Maryland fatalities comes as the Coast Guard released statistics showing that 2010 was the safest ever on the water. Six hundred seventy-two people died, four fewer than in 2004 and 26 lower than the average over the last decade.
With the Maryland boating season entering its busiest month and falling gas prices fueling the urge to get out on the water, the warning signs are there for a record-breaking year.
"I worry about this year," said Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation, a recreational maritime safety organization. "After a long, cold spring, we know when people go back out again it's going to be trouble. People feel they can just jump in the boat and go like they do in a car. They have a false sense of security. But boaters have things coming at them from all sides and underneath. They need situational awareness."
It's hard to find an overriding pattern in Maryland's 11 deaths.
The mishaps occurred in nine counties, according to accident reports. They involved pleasure boats, commercial boats, a sailboat and a kayak. Only one accident resulted in multiple deaths. The victims — all male — ranged in age from 40 to 81.
"We look at the factors. It's like reading tea leaves," said Edmonston. "Weather plays a part. The economy plays a part and dumb luck is a big part."
The death toll easily could be much higher. On Feb. 10, three experienced anglers were plucked from the waters off Calvert Cliffs by a quick-thinking fishing guide. On April 14 and April 17, a total of eight men were rescued from boats in distress. Just last Friday, four adults had to be rescued just south of the Bay Bridge when their boat filled with water and flipped.
Those are the mishaps we know about. Like hunting accidents, there are many nautical near-misses that go unreported.
One thing in the 11 accident reports does jump out, as it does almost every year: the overwhelming stubbornness exhibited by adults when it comes to wearing life jackets.
Maryland pioneered mandatory boating safety classes in the 1980s and setting a minimum age for wearing a life jacket. A recent law championed by the O'Malley administration requires a child under 13 years of age to wear a life jacket while underway in a vessel that is less than 21 feet in length. In addition, children younger than 4 or who weight less than 50 pounds must have a life jacket equipped with a grab strap, inflatable headrest and crotch strap.
But very few personal safety regulations target adults. According to Coast Guard statistics, roughly 90 percent of victims in fatal boating accidents weren't wearing life jackets. State records show 16 of the 17 victims in 2009 failed to take that simple precaution.
NRP Capt. Bob Davis, a long-time boating safety advocate, said that when it comes to adult safety, "You can't legislate prudence."
The three men rescued at Calvert Cliffs almost certainly owe their lives to their decision to wear life jackets. The vests kept them afloat in icy waters until help arrived.
Edmonston said he was fishing last November in the Chesapeake when he was flagged down by a guy in a sit-on-top kayak who had been blown all the way down the Magothy River and couldn't get back. He was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, but no life jacket, and "he didn't have a clue," said Edmonston, who helped the paddler reach safety.
"People go out on the water to escape, and that's good," Edmonston said. "But you have to be prepared for what you encounter."