Boating deaths down slightly after a tragic 2015

With the summer boating season now over, a dozen people have died in state waters, officials said.

That was slightly off the pace of 2015, when the 12-month total of 21 deaths was the most in two decades.


It's hard to identify the cause of last year's spike or this year's modest drop-off, says Candy Thomson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police.

But it's not difficult to notice a common thread in the tragedies.


The vast majority of the victims — 18 of last year's, and all of this year's — weren't wearing life jackets.

That mistake, Thomson says, can render all other conditions irrelevant.

"There are so many factors involved in this," she said. "If gas prices are low, more people are out boating, which means a likelihood of more problems. Same thing if the weather's good. But we do know that people are their own best lifeguards. We push [safety] as hard as we can, but we can't be everywhere. Wear a life jacket."

Officials said it's hard to find a definitive explanation for last year's uptick in fatalities. The weather was better than average for boating overall, but the death toll appeared to jump off the curve.

On average, 13 boaters die in Maryland each year.

At state Department of Natural Resources headquarters in Annapolis, the sheer numbers last year — 125 people were injured in 146 incidents — proved hard to digest.

"Last year was a shocker for us," Thomson said. "Every time we thought, 'We're past this,' they just kept coming. No matter what we said, it didn't seem to make a difference."

The department set out to bolster safety measures for 2016, increasing safety patrols, implementing more educational outreach programs, offering free safety checks and partnering with the Coast Guard and local fire departments.

With four months left in this calendar year — boaters routinely take to the water through late October — it's impossible to predict where the figures will go. But more boating accidents occur in July and August than in any other months, Thomson said, which means there's a reasonable chance of a significant decline in fatalities from last year.

Even if there's a reduction, it's hard to make definitive statements about it, other than to say the added safety measures didn't hurt. And as always, boaters should wear life jackets.

State law requires life jackets for children, but not for individuals over 16. Most wear them, Thomson says. But many boaters — even experienced ones — have a false sense of security that can prove deadly in a matter of moments.

In many cases this year, help was on the way, or people could see the victims from shore as they struggled in the water.


In January, two 23-year-old duck hunters from Glen Burnie were a few hundred feet from shore on the Severn River when 35-mph gusts capsized their 14-foot boat. Due to treacherous conditions, a rescue effort quickly became a recovery operation.

In June, an Edgewater man drowned in the South River while trying to recover a hat. In July, a Falls Church, Va., man drowned in the Potomac River after jumping in for a fallen fishing rod.

Thomson said it's possible the men were tired or even had medical emergencies. Lacking life jackets, they had little time to save themselves.

Boaters should remember that dangerous conditions can develop in an instant, Thomson added, and often under what might appear to be ordinary circumstances.

"People say, 'Well, I can swim.' Or 'We're only in 6 feet of water.' Or 'This is where my family has been coming for 25 years.' But if you hit your head or break an arm — if you're incapacitated or a little woozy — you can't help yourself."

The state requires that boaters have one life jacket on board for each passenger. But safety checks last year revealed that many didn't know where they were or hadn't opened the packaging they came in.

"Trying to find or open a life jacket in an emergency is like trying to buckle your seat belt in the middle of an accident," Thomson said. "It's not going to happen."

Anything can happen between now and the end of the year, and Thomson recalls that last year's final fatality occurred late on New Year's Eve. But if more people were to stick to the most basic of all safety precautions, it could be an average year, or better.

And 2017? Even with 180,000 registered boats in Maryland, Thomson says the figures could be cut down still further.

"Will we ever have a zero? That's probably wishful thinking. But we like to think it's possible," she says.

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