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Officials stress safety precautions as Maryland sees one of highest boating death rates in decades

The U.S. Coast Guard investigates a collision after a commercial power boat and a sailboat crashed in the Chesapeake Bay this month. The two boats were sailing off the shore of Thomas Point Park when the commercial boat and the sailboat collided.
The U.S. Coast Guard investigates a collision after a commercial power boat and a sailboat crashed in the Chesapeake Bay this month. The two boats were sailing off the shore of Thomas Point Park when the commercial boat and the sailboat collided. (Maryland Natural Resources Police / HANDOUT)

Fourteen people have died in boating-related incidents in Maryland this year — up from nine in 2017 — putting the state on track for one of the deadliest years in decades.

While the cause for the increase is unknown, the common denominator in every death is life jackets, a Maryland Natural Resources Police spokeswoman said last week.

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In 13 boating-related deaths this year, the victim was not wearing a life jacket, said Candy Thomson, the police spokeswoman. One victim was, but his life jacket failed to inflate.

Likewise, in 2017, all nine victims were not wearing life jackets, Thomson said. In 2016, 14 of the 17 victims were without life jackets and in 2015, the number was 19 out of 21.

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“You can be the best swimmer in the world — you can be Michael Phelps — but if you fall from a boat and hit your head, or you're stunned, or you break your arm, you're not going to be able to tread water very long,” Thomson said. “Many of our accidents in Maryland, the victim was within sight of shore, and in many cases, help was on the way. I've talked to people who were standing on shore and about to launch a boat and the person just disappeared.”

“We’re already at the average for the whole year, and that’s what causes us pause at this point,” Maryland Natural Resources Police spokeswoman Candy Thomson said.

Maryland law requires all children under age 13 to wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket when aboard a vessel under 21 feet in length. According to Thomson, there is no legislation, though, requiring the same for teenagers and adults.

Every Maryland boating fatality this year has been an adult, ranging in age from 21 to 70.

Thomson believes that if there were a life jacket law, there would have to be some kind of effect, though she knows that the language of the bill itself, as well as Marylanders’ likely resistance to new restrictions on their leisure activity, could lessen the law’s effect.

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“I grew up in the era where [car] seat belts became mandatory,” she said. “Certainly there was a long period of people simply ignoring the law. You can look at texting while driving today — it's against the law, it's a safety issue — and you can look while you're driving and see lots of people on their phones.”

No state across the country has any mandatory life jacket laws for adults, with Louisiana’s 16-and-under rule being the toughest.

“I've been watching this now for 16 years, and I cannot recall anybody offering legislation to make adult life jacket wear mandatory,” Thomson said.

Outside of the life jacket factor, though, Thomson said, it’s difficult to understand why more people have died this year than in 2017.

A speculative cause, she said, is rain. This year’s March-to-July period was Baltimore’s wettest in history, with 29.61 inches of rainfall, more than Maryland saw in 2011, a summer that included Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

However, neither of the two fatalities recorded in July had a clear link to bad weather. Stephanie Meredith, 35, of Easton went missing after the log canoe she was in took a sharp turn and capsized. Her body was found a day and a half later.

The body of a woman who fell out of a racing sailboat during a practice on the Corsica River between Queen Anne’s and Kent counties on Friday night was found nearby Sunday morning by a good Samaritan while crews searched the area, according to Maryland Natural Resources Police. 

The rising number of fatalities is not just a Maryland issue. In North Carolina, 29 people have perished in boating-related incidents in its deadliest year in two decades. In Tennessee, 21 have died.

The number of people boating is increasing, and with more people on the water, there’s inherently a greater chance for accidents, said Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation Crew.

In 2016, 142 million people boated. In 2017, it was 150 million, Edmonston said. Though this year’s data will not be available until next spring, he expects the number has continued to rise.

Waters have been colder as well, Edmonston said, despite the hot weather, making conditions for someone who has fallen in even more treacherous.

“Most of the time, they were in conditions that they weren’t prepared for and went in the water, like falling off the paddle-craft into cold water,” Edmonston said. “While not wearing a life jacket, that’s a guarantee that you’re going to get in trouble.”

The April death of Jose Gilberto Loza Ramirez, 21, occurred while he tried to use a kayak to recover a floating platform in the Severn River. The kayak capsized in 45-degree water.

Thomson and Edmonston stressed that boaters should take a number of precautions before venturing onto the water. Thomson advocates for every vessel to carry a marine radio tuned to channel 16, the international distress frequency.

“You pick up up your cellphone, and you call for help, you’ve reached one person,” she said. “If you get on marine channel 16 and call ‘mayday,’ you’re talking to everyone on the water … from Coast Guard, to Natural Resources Police, to the Fire Department to good [Samaritans].”

Boaters are advised to double check the weather forecast, as most weather apps will show the threat of thunderstorms. All boats should also meet the legal conditions guidelines, which can be found here. Safety resources, provided by BoatUS, can be found here.

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