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Florida fatality numbers ‘worrisome’

By the end of April, more than two dozen people had died on Florida waters so far this year

By the end of April, more than two dozen people had died on Florida waters so far this year

On April 24, a Sanford man died in a personal watercraft accident on the St. Johns River, the 25th Florida boating fatality in a year in which deaths on state waters are occurring at a pace not seen for a decade.

“[The year] 1997 was the last time we saw numbers quite like this,” says Brian Rehwinkel, a boating and waterways analyst for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Before that, 1992.”

The number is “10-12” ahead of last year’s pace. “That’s worrisome,” he says. “We haven’t even hit the big summer boating season yet.”

The most recent fatality was Christopher J. Lydon, 46, who died while driving a PWC with friends when their two PWC crossed paths. “It was a tragic and far too common accident,” Rehwinkel says. “[There were] two vessels, one turned, the other didn’t see him in time.”

Rehwinkel says there seems to be no common denominator to explain the spike in boating deaths except maybe Florida’s exceedingly dry spring. The accidents have been all over the state and of many different types.

“We are having a drought,” he says. “There have been a lot of good, sunny boating weekends so far this year. Maybe there were just more people out on the water early this year.”

The FWC has found year in and year out that the two biggest factors in boating fatalities are failure to wear a life jacket and failure to keep a good lookout — paying attention to what’s going on around the boat.

Three-hundred-sixty-degree awareness is essential. “If you see someone bow-riding, get them off the bow,” he says. “If you see someone approaching recklessly, get out of the way. Don’t wait for him to make the first move. In shallow water, be careful. Look for divers.”

Many accident victims drown, even though they can swim or are close to shore or the boat. Trauma, surprise or confusion disable them, Rehwinkel says. He estimates that just 5 percent of adults wear a life jacket on the water in Florida. “It’s a very low percentage,” he says.

This summer FWC will join the National Safe Boating Council in a “Wear it, Florida” campaign to increase life jacket wear rates.

He says the campaign will encourage boaters to wear their life jackets voluntarily. “Do it for yourself; do it for your family; do it for your friends,” he says. FWC plans to hold drawings for life jackets, offer special discounts on them and try to raise the visibility of inflatable life jackets, belt pack inflatables especially. He says these are the most wearable and least likely to get in the way when they’re worn because they fit into a pouch on a belt. They automatically inflate in the water but still require wearers to have the presence of mind to slip the inflated chamber over their heads after the jacket inflates.

Rehwinkel says statistics don’t lie. “The ones who wear their life jackets all the time stand a better chance of surviving [an accident],” he says.