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Florida tallies incidents on the water

Statistics show men mid-30s to mid-40s are most likely to be involved in a boating-related fatality

Florida’s 2005 boating accident statistics show that older men have replaced teenagers as Florida’s problem drivers on the water, again raising the question: Should the state extend mandatory boating safety education from young people to boaters of all ages?

“A lot of the fatalities are not the younger people like you might think,” says Lt. Edward Cates, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s assistant boating safety coordinator. “It’s men 35 and 45 years old.”

One of 2005’s fatalities was Frank Everett Jr., 31, of Wildwood, Fla., who went fishing alone in a 12-foot jonboat on a rock quarry pond near St. Catherine. His wife reported him missing the afternoon of March 28, according to an FWCC report. Divers found Everett’s boat and body in 40 feet of water, just 25 feet from shore. He was not wearing a life jacket.

Another, Solomon Jones, a 42-year-old from Butler, Fla., was thrown from his 14-foot jonboat Nov. 6 on the Santa Fe River near Ellisville, FWCC says. Witnesses told officers he surfaced, swam for shore, went down and didn’t come back up. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket, either.

John R. Thirsk, 56, and his wife Patricia, of Fernandino Beach, Fla., had rafted their 24-footer with two other boats Aug. 26 on Durbin Creek near Jacksonville. Thirsk ambled up to the bow to gas up the generator, slipped, fell into the water and disappeared, FWCC says. Divers found his body the next day. Thirsk was not wearing a life jacket.

In another case, Barry Diehl, 42, of Kissimmee, Fla., was at the wheel of his 17-foot bass boat on West Lake Toho in Osceola County when he noticed a strap flapping loose on the bow. He stepped forward to try to fasten it, letting go of the steering wheel just long enough for the boat to turn sharply right at 30 mph. The turn knocked Diehl off his feet, rolled him across the deck and threw him into the water, where the boat’s outboard ran over him, according to the FWCC report. Two friends pulled him back aboard, but he died later at the hospital.

Florida finished 2005 with 80 boating fatalities, a 15-percent increase over 2004 and the largest number of boating deaths in a decade. Deaths from falls overboard rose 53 percent, Cates says. Eighty-three percent of those were boaters older than 36; 53 percent were older than 51. Most were men. None was wearing a life jacket.

He says the statistics show a lot of older men who aren’t wearing life jackets are falling off 16- to 18-foot jonboats in calm water on lakes, ponds and rivers, and they are drowning. Some don’t know how to swim. Some aren’t in good enough shape to swim very far.

“They panic,” he says.

Cates doesn’t foresee legislation requiring all boaters to wear life jackets (currently children under younger than 6 must wear them under way), but he says FWCC is pushing for a law to extend mandatory education to all resident Floridians who operate motorboats, probably powered by engines 10 hp or greater. Right now only motorboat operators 21 and younger must carry a card certifying that they have completed a boating safety course.

Accidents involving boaters younger than 22 have steadily declined from 21 percent of all boating accidents in 1995 — when mandatory education for young people was adopted — to 16 percent in 2003 to 14 percent in 2005. Cates attributes that to education.

FWCC reports that 58 percent of those involved in a fatal boating accident have more than 100 hours of boating experience, but 90 percent have taken no safety classes. “These other age groups need to be educated,” Cates says. He predicts that will save lives. He doubts universal education will happen overnight, but it is a long-term goal of his department. “If we don’t get it this time around, we’ll keep pushing for it,” he says. “It’s important.”

So is wearing a life jacket. Cates says FWCC is getting the word out to hunters, anglers and others who say life jackets are too uncomfortable to wear to try an inflatable PFD, which is what FWCC officers wear. “They don’t bind. You don’t even know they’re there,” he says.

Last year Florida boat registrations tipped a million — 1,010,370, to be exact — edging out Michigan registrations for the No. 1 ranking in the nation. Cates says Florida boating is still growing. He wants the number of educated boaters to grow, too.