The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is urging boaters to exercise heightened caution amid an increase in the number of fatal accidents in state waters this year.
Seventeen people have been killed in boat accidents this year, according to Candy Thomson, spokeswoman for Natural Resources police. The state averages 12 boating-related deaths a year, she said.
On Sunday, a man went missing after a boat sank on the Chesapeake Bay. In July, two women were killed in a boat crash south of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. In June, a 7-year-old was killed and several others injured — including one who lost an arm — when a racing boat lost control off Kent Island.
Nineteen people were killed in boating accidents in 2011, which Thomson said was the "highest level in recent years." Thomson said the number of fatalities for this year is preliminary and that an official number is released by the Coast Guard every year.
The number of fatalities this year reflects an increase of boating activity because of warm weather and low gas prices, Thomson said. She said the late Labor Day could extend the boating season and the likelihood of more accidents.
Life jackets are the "number one factor" in whether a boater survives an accident, she said, noting that of the 17 people who died in boating-related accidents this year, 14 were not wearing life jackets.
State law requires children under 13 to wear life vests. Officials recommend that adults also wear life vests when out on the water, and that boaters keep them accessible.
None of the four children involved in the accident Sunday were wearing life jackets, Thomson said.
"Michael Phelps is a great swimmer, but Michael Phelps who has struck his head or is cold and disoriented is not going to fare very well — not in the Potomac, not in the Chesapeake Bay, not in the Susquehanna," she said. "They're murky, they have currents. The bay has a tremendous tide."
Officials also recommend that boaters tell someone their destination and expected return time, and check the weather forecast to avoid storms.