Last December authorities found a 14-foot jonboat running in circles on north Florida’s Ochlockonee River and, nearby in the water, the body of its operator, a deer hunter. He was not wearing a life jacket.
Nearly a year earlier, on Jan. 7, a 23-foot Seacraft speeding down Miami’s Biscayne Bay collided with a 21-foot Contender accelerating out of the Coral Gables waterway. A man on the Contender died in the crash.
Two boating accidents; two deaths. They were among the 80 boating fatalities recorded on Florida waterways in 2005 and, according to Capt. Richard Moore, the state’s boating law administrator, accidents like these — falls overboard and collisions — account for much of the worrisome 15-percent increase in boating deaths last year. (See a sampling of accident reports.)
The tally of 2005 deaths is the highest since 1995, when 82 boaters died in Florida. Moore says the numbers have been rising steadily for five years after a downward trend in the late ’90s.
Falls overboard, the biggest cause of death, accounted for 29 of 69 fatal accidents last year. Moore says he has seen a steep rise in falls overboard among men 51 years and older who are swimmers, but fall off a boat under 17 feet on calm inland waters and drown.
A lot of these small-boat fatalities involve hunters and anglers. Moore’s message to these folks: Be aware of the dangers of a fall overboard on a small boat. The boats are unstable, people lose their balance on them and they fall in the water. Be careful, Moore says — and wear a life jacket. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is pushing hard for voluntary life jacket wear. Moore recommends inflatable belt packs. “Put it on and wear it,” he says. “You won’t even know you have it on.”
The other major cause of death was collisions, with fixed objects and other boats. Fatal collisions numbered 10. Moore says the problem is awareness at the wheel: “People wouldn’t run into things if they were paying more attention to what’s going on around them. … Be alert.
“If we could make a difference in these two areas, we could reduce the accidents in this state and turn this trend around,” Moore says. “The direction we’re going [the increase in fatalities] is not a good one.”
Monroe County (the Florida Keys) reported the highest number of accidents, 120 with six fatalities and 49 injuries. Collisions are epidemic in the Keys, Moore says, and many are hard groundings at high speed. Often the Monroe collisions involve visitors — from Dade, Broward or Palm Beach county. Moore says a big part of the problem in Monroe is boaters who don’t know local waters. Dade County (Miami) ranks second in accidents with 46 involving three fatalities and 24 injuries. Most accidents there involve locals, he says.
FWC plans summer boating-safety campaigns in Monroe and Dade that will focus on collisions and promote alertness behind the wheel. The department also is gearing up campaigns for inland counties to address the dangers of falls overboard on small boats, he says.
Moore says FWC is continuing to push owners of personal watercraft rental businesses to educate those who rent watercraft. PWC account for 22 percent of Florida accidents, and rental PWC account for 36 percent of the PWC accidents, though they account for just 2.1 percent of PWC registrations. Moore says his agency has posted an online course for operators of rental businesses to help them develop education programs for their customers. People who rent PWC often are visitors and boating novices unfamiliar with local waters. “They really need our continued attention,” he says.
Alcohol was a factor in 25 percent of fatal accidents, which, though significant, isn’t as big a factor as many think. “A lot of the public has the feeling that everyone on the water is out there running around drunk,” Moore says. “This data tends to dispel that.”
Florida boat registrations in 2005 numbered 1,010,370 — the highest in the nation. In 2004, the last year that national statistics were available, Florida led in accidents at 713, compared to runner-up California’s 603, and in fatalities, 66 to second-place Louisiana’s 44.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good idea what the problems are now,” Moore says. Expect some aggressive public education to address them.