I spent my childhood in West Virginia’s many natural and man made lakes and streams and enjoy boating on Long Island Sound and around New York City. Before launching my Grady White Tournament style boat in saltwater in NY a few years ago, I made a point to take the boater safety course, even though it is was not mandatory. I wanted to make sure that not only I felt safe on the water, but also my family and friends were confident that I knew how to navigate the boat and handle it safely on the Sound. I have since been amazed at the number of boaters I encounter regularly who do not know the general “rules of the water” that are not meant just as simple courtesies to other boaters, but intended to keep everyone safe on the water. National Safe Boating Week is this week, May 19–25, so I thought it would be appropriate to highlight how many organizations are getting involved to help promote safety on the water, which is well needed. Indeed, raising awareness of boating accidents and safety is important because, for example, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, over 3,000 Americans were injured last year, with property damages totaling over $50 million. Much like automobile accidents, boating accidents can happen fast, and may create serious and even severe medical injuries.
Some of the most common—and a few uncommon—boating injures are listed below, along with a little advice on how to best avoid them. Remember that wearing your life jacket is key to your safety. The Coast Guard notes that among those who drowned in 2009 from boating incidents, 9 out of 10 were not wearing their life jackets. In New York, anyone under the age of 12 must wear a life jacket.
- Collisions. Boats colliding with other boats, jet skis against jet skis, or even boats against the dock, are all common boating accidents. Often these are caused by inexperienced or inebriated drivers who do not understand simple concepts such as who had the right of way. Avoid alcohol, or assign a designated boat or watercraft operator if you’re going to be partying on the water. In addition, wear your life jacket, and don't operate any machinery that is beyond your expertise.
- Capsizing. Unfortunately, capsizing is the most common boating accident that can cause drowning and death. These accidents are normally the result of improper loading or overloading, though they can sometimes be caused by foul weather, or when the boat is anchored by the stern (which throws it off balance). Follow the manufacturer's recommendations when it comes to loading and anchoring, and remember the stability of the vessel is affected by the weight and position of both cargo and passengers. Wear your life jacket, and if you do capsize, stay with the craft until help comes.
- Falls. Unstable footing, standing and moving about, traveling at excessive speeds, or unexpected turns can all cause falls, which can also result in serious injuries, fractures, broken bones, and drowning and death. Make sure you go over turning techniques before you leave port, warn your passengers of safe traveling practices, drive at a safe speed, and alert your passengers to any upcoming turns. Also, make sure your passengers are seated inside the boat and not on the gunnels, where the most falls occur from. One time while boating in Florida, we were trailing behind a boat (at a safe distance) when a passenger in a boat ahead of us fell backwards off while sitting on the side of the boat. Luckily, we had spotted the passenger and kept a safe distance and were able to rescue him quickly after he fell in to what was a very busy port.
These are some of the most common boating accidents but other sources of injury are not so expected. A slip that results in a hard conk on the head can quickly turn into a drowning. A man in Texas, for example, was loading his boat when he slipped, hit his head, and went into the water. He was pulled out, but later pronounced dead. In other cases, people towing someone behind their boat fail to follow safety protocols. They may not have a spotter watching the tow while the captain of the boat is watching for surrounding traffic and keeping a safe distance.
In this warm, summer weather, getting out on the water can be a lot of fun. Just remember that there are a lot of other people out there too, and keep yourself safe!
- Wear your lifejacket.
- Do not operate the boat under the influence of alcohol.
- Start the season off with a thorough boat inspection.
- Take a boating safety course before getting out on the water.
- File a float plan and leave it with someone on land if you are going off shore, just in case of an emergency.
- Make sure you have a marine band radio and visual distress signals.
If you're unlucky enough to get into an accident yourself this year on the water, you may want to consult with legal counsel to evaluate the situation and determine whether you have a legal claim for negligence. Someone who not only practices law but also has at least a general understanding of boating and boat safety regulations should be able to assist you.
Exclusively focused on representing plaintiffs, especially in mass tort litigation, Eric Chaffin prides himself on providing unsurpassed professional legal services in pursuit of the specific goals of his clients and their families. Both his work and his cases have been featured in the national press, including on ABC’s Good Morning America.