Maryland waters are more dangerous than ever, according to a research group that surveyed marine insurance companies and found that the number of boating accidents last year was vastly under reported.
The state Department of Natural Resources reported 387 boating accidents in Maryland last year, but the Marine Index Bureau said the number is more than 1,100. And that doesn't include accidents involving uninsured boaters, who make up the majority of those on the water.
"We're giving a conservative estimate," said Scott Galing, spokesman for the bureau, which is a branch of the Coast Guard.
He said top Coast Guard officials were suspicious of their original state and national figures and asked his group to conduct its survey.
Neither survey includes personal watercraft accidents, which doubled to 48 from 1993 to 1994, according to Maryland Natural Resources Police, who attributed many of the accidents to the mushrooming traffic on the water and a lack of regulations.
"Imagine having a parking lot the size of Rhode Island, and we take a couple hundred thousand vehicles . . . and we turn them loose," said Cpl. Mike Kueberth. "They can go anywhere they want and as fast as they want. That's basically what you're dealing with."
The number of boats registered in Maryland has tripled in the last two decades to 200,000, and the number of personal watercraft increased from about 3,700 in 1992 to 7,100 last year. Those figures do not include the out-of-state boaters who flock to Maryland shores or unregistered boats, DNR police said.
Some boaters say the problem isn't just more people on the water, but that anyone can operate a boat.
"It's crazy," said Jim Hall, 39, as he relaxed in his 16-foot Boston Whaler at the City Dock in Annapolis. "There's a lot of people out there who have no idea what their doing. They just buy the boat, jump in, turn the key and go."
Others blame reckless muscle boaters who don't know right of way rules or courtesy and cause many of the accidents.
"They are bare-chested, beer-bellied, with loud noises and girls in string bikinis," said Antonio Sanpere of Annapolis, a retired engineer who has been sailing for 30 years. "You're sitting there with you're little kids and your family and you're fishing and it's an OK day as far as waves, but here comes the power boat with this monstrous wake."
Boaters and marine authorities agree that adding alcohol to the mix of crowded waters and uneducated boaters often can be lethal. Of the 23 people who died in boating accidents in Maryland last year, 21 had alcohol in their blood. Maryland law limits boaters to a blood alcohol level of .08, compared with 1.0 for automobile drivers.
Natural Resources Police have arrested 98 people this year for operating a boat while intoxicated.
In Maryland, a 1988 law requires that all boaters born after 1972 pass a six-hour educational course. However, most rental agencies are exempted and most accidents are caused by older boaters, the Coast Guard says.
Meanwhile, leaders of boating organizations oppose mandatory safety courses for boat owners, despite complaints from many members.
"The first thing you hear from older boaters is, 'I've been on the water for 20 years now, and you want me to go in and take a course?' " said Michael Sciulla, vice president for BOAT US, a national organization that represents 500,000 boaters.
Mr. Sciulla and others noted that while boating accidents have doubled in the last 15 years in Maryland, boating-related deaths nationally and in the state are dropping.
Nationwide, fatalities on the water dropped from 1,754 in 1968 to 784 last year. In Maryland, they were down slightly from a peak of 37 in 1979 to 23 last year.
Natural Resources Police say sturdier boats, safer life jackets and reducing incidents of drinking and boating have saved lives.
But they point out another problem: There aren't enough officers to enforce what laws are on the books.
Staffing levels have remained the same since the 1960s, when there was a third as many boats. There are about 200 officers for roughly 4,431 miles of Maryland shoreline.
"When I was a Baltimore City cop, you would get to the scene of an accident and direct traffic and then write your report," Corporal Kueberth said as he steered his police boat, a 20-foot Boston Whaler, on the Severn River. "Here, you care for the injured, put out the boat fire, tow the boat, and then you write a report."
Congestion on the water eventually will lead to the same kinds of regulations imposed on automobile drivers, said Tony Stimatz, chief of boating safety for the Coast Guard.
"At first, you didn't need a lot," he said. "But as congestion increased and speed went up, what did you see? We started to regulate their use. I think that's the trend we're moving towards in boating."
Maryland limits speeds near harbors and creeks to 6 mph to slow traffic. Water skiers and operators of personal water craft must keep at least 100 feet from any boat or pier. Life jackets that fit each passenger became mandatory last year.
"The water is not a forgiving atmosphere," said Sgt. Wayne Jones, community outreach coordinator for the Natural Resources Police. "If you're in a car and you hit something you can step out. But if you're in a boat and you're sinking, you're in trouble right away."
Maryland Natural Resources Police offers these safety tips for boaters:
* Wear a life jacket that fits.
* Schedule a boating plan including departure and arrival point and leave it with a family member or friend.
* Have a shortwave radio or cellular phone aboard.
* Routinely check your boat's condition. Make sure all the drainage plugs are in place, look for cracks and rusting. You can get your boat inspected for free at any Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla.
* Know the weather conditions.
* Know your surroundings. Watch for shallow areas, rocks, speed limits.
* Have a designated driver if alcohol is on board.