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Drivers in some states can save 10 percent on automobile insurance if they complete a defensive driving course where they learn strategies to avoid accidents and minimize risks on the roadways. Experts say the concept of defensive driving is also needed on the water right now, given new and troubling U.S. Coast Guard data about injuries and accidents.

During 2020—a year that saw a 13-year high for boat sales and a dramatic increase in first-time boat buyers hitting the waterways—the number of accidents increased 26.3 percent, to 5,265. The number of nonfatal injuries was up 24.7 percent, to 3,191.
And the number of boating fatalities spiked 25.1 percent, to 767. “There is evidence that boating activity increased significantly during the pandemic,” the Coast Guard reported. “With the increased exposure, there was greater risk of deaths, injuries and accidents.”

Slow down in busy harbors or channels where paddleboarders can emerge suddenly from behind a pier and cut in front of your boat.

Slow down in busy harbors or channels where paddleboarders can emerge suddenly from behind a pier and cut in front of your boat.

The causes of those accidents were often avoidable mistakes: drinking while driving; failure to pay attention; improper lookouts and excessive speed. Three-quarters of the fatal boating accident victims drowned, according to the Coast Guard report, and most of them were not wearing life jackets. At least 80 percent of deaths occurred on vessels whose operators had not received boating-safety instruction.

In this climate, experienced boaters need to do more than usual to keep themselves safe, says Chris Edmonston, president BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water, the nation’s largest organization of recreational boat owners. He says he’s seeing dangerous situations every week when he goes out on his runabout in Maryland. And as an on-the-water instructor, he is now constantly thinking about all kinds of ways to do more defensive-style driving at the helm.

“I’m in my 50s, and when I was growing up, you learned from other boaters. There was a culture and a way of doing things,” he says. “Especially since last year, boating has become more of an activity, not a lifestyle. When it’s an activity, you’re not going to learn a lot of the nuances that are out there to make the trip safer and more enjoyable.”

Experienced boaters understand those nuances and can make choices to improve their safety amid the chaos, Edmonston says.

His first suggestion is to cruise farther off the beaten course. Inexperienced and uneducated boaters usually aren’t comfortable when they cruise too far from shore, or even too far from a popular boat ramp or party spot. Experienced boaters, he says, can explore new coves and harbors to get away from the worst of the crowds. “Try to figure out where the lightly used access areas are,” he says. “I think of places like Florida, where everybody wants to go raft up on a sandbar—that maybe is not the best place for novice boaters, and it’s a place that experienced boaters can avoid.”

Edmonston’s next suggestion for experienced boaters is to go cruising at times when newer boaters are likely to feel uncomfortable on the waterways. “I have a neighbor who bought a boat last year, and they won’t go out if the wind is over 10 mph or if it’s dark,” he says. “So, I go out more in the evening. A lot of people are not willing to go out when it’s a little bit windy. If you’re an experienced boater, polish up your skills and go out when it’s a little windier.”

His third idea for experienced boaters is to slow down, especially in busy harbors or channels where whole flocks of paddleboarders or kayakers can emerge suddenly from behind a pier and cut right in front of a boat that’s under way. “Stay away from the docks or make sure that you’re almost stopped if you’re coming around a corner,” he says, “so you can make sure you have the ability to come to a complete stop or avoid a paddler who just comes out of nowhere.”

That feeling of a paddler coming out of nowhere can also occur in a channel, Edmonston says, because if a skipper is battling sun glare, he may not see the paddler until the boat is right on top of the person. “You don’t ever want to be facing right into the sun,” he says. “You’ll miss seeing them and come up on them rather quickly. Take angles to the sun so you can avoid glare spots.”

Keep a lookout on board; it’s a great defensive-driving strategy.

Keep a lookout on board; it’s a great defensive-driving strategy.

Another good idea for experienced skippers, he says, is to ensure that you always keep your boat behind other boats. If the inexperienced boater is in front of you, then you can watch what it does and use your skills to react. “That dramatically reduces the risk of impact,” he says. “It eliminates them and their idiocy from your equation.”

And if possible, Edmonston adds, also stay out of the traffic itself by making use of the full waterway. “I tend to go slow and toward the edges of the channel, the river or the harbor,” he says. “Everybody’s going to be right in the middle—that’s where they think it’s safe. If you go slow and toward the edge of the channel, you typically know that one side will always be pretty safe.”

The only lasting solution to many of the dangerous situations on the waterways right now, Edmonston says, is boater education—and skilled boaters can help with that.

Take the time to befriend newer boaters at the dock, and casually impart a little knowledge over a sundowner while safely tied up for the night. Contact lawmakers to insist that state agencies require education courses for paddlers (something no state does right now, Edmonston says). Encourage local marinas and dealers to host boating education seminars.

“If people know that courses are available, they’ll take them,” Edmonston says. “In 2020, we saw record growth in our online boating safety course, which is approved by most states. And that has continued into this year, so that’s great. We also teach on-the-water boat handling, and that’s seeing record growth as well.”

For now, though, his advice is to think more defensively at the helm. Experienced boaters are best positioned to protect themselves, even if it means having to change favorite habits until the incident levels normalize. “It’s just depressing sometimes, isn’t it?” he says. “I just want to go out and have fun on the boat.”  

This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.

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