Boating Safety Overview

Lessons learned from a review of boating accident statistics.

By Beth A. Leonard

Photo of boat collision damageCollisions are responsible for more fatalities and injuries while boating than any other type of accident.

Picture got your attention, didn't it? But when it comes to boating injuries, the truth is that accidents like the collision that caused the damage above are the exception. Boating is surprisingly safe compared to many other activities we engage in — and getting safer. As we reported in our October 2014 issue, fatalities have dropped to 4.7 per 100,000 registered recreational boats (2013 USCG Recreational Boating Statistics), more than 80 percent below the all-time high of 27.7 deaths per 100,000 registered boats in 1973. Collision and crew-overboard incidences account for most of the fatalities.

Injuries occur more frequently — somewhere around 100 per 100,000 registered boats. While collision is also the leading cause of injury, the majority of boating accidents leading to injury are more mundane than life-threatening: a sprained ankle from jumping off the boat to the dock, a broken rib from falling down the companionway, a back injury from being thrown from the seat by a wave. These smaller accidents can still wreck your day, your week, your month, and possibly your year. Proper boat-handling practices and a few minor modifications to your boat can go a long way toward reducing the chances of an injury.

So let's take a look at the available accident statistics to see how you can make sure that your time on the water is relaxing, fun ... and safe for you, your family, and your guests.

Overview Of Fatalities

We would all prefer that no one died while boating, but there isn't anything we do that doesn't have some degree of risk associated with it. So the question becomes: How risky is boating compared to other activities? Based on an analysis of the BoatUS Marine Insurance claim files between January 1, 2009, and December 31, 2013, an estimated five people died per 100,000 registered boats. According to the Coast Guard 2013 Recreational Boating Statistics, 560 people died in recreational boating accidents in 2013, or 4.7 per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. In 2012, 14 people per 100,000 registered cars and 60 people per registered motorcycles died in accidents as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in Traffic Safety Facts. While it is difficult to directly compare any of these statistics, they all point in the same direction — boating does not seem that risky compared to other activities involving a vehicle.

Chart 1: Boating Accidents Leading To Fatalities By Type 2009-2013

Boat injury fatalilty chartSource: BostUS Marine Insurance

But people do die aboard boats, most for one of two reasons: the boat hit something, or someone accidentally went overboard. As Chart 1 shows, 36 percent of fatalities in the BoatUS claim files involved an accident where someone went overboard, and 18 percent resulted from a collision — usually with something solid like a pier or another boat. This data mirrors the findings in the Coast Guard's report where, in 2013, 40 percent of fatalities occurred after someone accidentally went overboard and 18 percent resulted from a collision. Since most capsize fatalities occur because someone went overboard, and grounding can be considered hitting something, collision and crew-overboard accidents combined result in more than two-thirds of boating fatalities in the BoatUS data.

Bottom line: If you don't hit anything and you don't let anyone fall overboard, the chances of someone dying on your boat — small to begin with — will be cut by more than half.

That said, the type of boat you have determines whether collisions or overboard situations are more deadly. On smaller boats like runabouts and PWCs, collision causes more fatalities than overboard situations (Table 1), but both are important. If you get into a collision on a small boat, there is very little in the way of boat structure to protect you from injury — even less on a PWC. Larger powerboats offer more protection to those aboard in a collision, so while fatalities occur from collisions, going overboard kills more people. On sailboats, with their slower speed and heavier construction, collisions are only very rarely fatal. Staying on the boat is the best way to avoid fatalities.

Table 1. Top Fatality And Injury Accidents By Type Of Boat

Boat TypeCauses Of InjuriesCauses Of Fatalities
Source: BoatUS Marine Insurance
Runabout/PWC1. Collision
2. Wave/wake
3. Watersports
1. Collision
2. Overboard
Other power1. Collision
1. Slip and fall
2. Embark/debark
1. Overboard
2. Collision
Sail1. Collision
2. Slip and fall
3. Embark/debark
1. Overboard

In future issues we will discuss ways to avoid fatalities from collision and crew-overboard accidents. You'll find a first installment in this issue — the story on COLREGS describes several situations where not knowing or not obeying the navigation rules had tragic consequences.

Overview Of Injuries

When it comes to calculating how often injuries happen on recreational boats, the data are harder to come by. Many accidents that should be reported to the Coast Guard are not despite the fact that reporting is mandatory for any personal injury. When someone calls BoatUS with a claim, we capture every injury no matter how minor, because the true severity may not be known at the time. What is reported as a bruised arm may turn out to be broken, for instance. But injuries that occur where the owner does not file a claim would still go unreported. That said, we see approximately 100 injuries per 100,000 registered vessels. That compares to 1,325 injuries per 100,000 registered cars and 1,052 per 100,000 registered motorcycles in 2012 as reported by NHTSA.

Table 2. Emergency-Room Visits For Sports Injuries In 2003

Recreational ActivityEmergency Room Visits per 100,000 Participants
*Surfing, SCUBA diving, waterskiing, tubing.
Source: Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC) Hazard Screening Report: Sports activities and equipment (excluding major team sports), 2005
Driving off-road vehicles1,638
Gymnastics/cheering1,111
Snow sports998
Fighting sports613
Swimming347
Water sports*307
Golf195
Racquet/volleying sports173
Shooting sports122
Low impact sports46

Table 2 shows the number of emergency-room visits per 100,000 participants for a variety of recreational activities. While direct comparisons are again problematic, boating looks to be relatively safe compared either to operating other types of vehicles or to other recreational activities. As to which types of accidents result in injuries, running into something tops the list just as it does for fatalities, accounting for 16 percent of the injuries in the BoatUS claim files (Chart 2) and 42 percent in the Coast Guard's accident data for 2013. The rest of the top five from the claim files are far less dramatic; four of them involve some variation of falling.

Chart 2: Boating Accidents Leading To Injuries By Type 2009-2013

Boating accidents leading to injuries chartSource: BostUS Marine Insurance

Slip-and-fall accidents include everything from slipping on the companionway steps to falling down an open hatch. People getting tossed around by a wave or large wake make up 10 percent of the injuries in the claim files. Falling while embarking/debarking — going from the dock, the land, or a dinghy to the boat — results in 9 percent of BoatUS injury claims. These top four categories of accidents account for almost half of all the injuries in our claim files. So, by not hitting anything and by always following the "one hand for the boat" rule, you can cut the already-low chance of an injury aboard your boat almost in half.

Accidents involving towing sports is the last of the top five, with 6 percent of injuries occurring while people are skiing, tubing, or wakeboarding. A few of these involve propeller strikes, and those are horrific. But pulls and strains from the tow rope are more typical. While collision tops the list of accidents resulting in injuries across all boat types (Table 1), injuries on smaller boats are more likely to result from wave/wake and towing sports accidents, while slip-and-fall and embarking/debarking injuries are more common on larger boats.

While most of the other accident categories are self-explanatory, a few require some explanation. The on-land accidents mostly occur when the boat is on the hard and someone falls off a ladder, the boat, or the mast. Almost all of the docking accidents involve someone putting some part of themselves between the boat and the dock. Pinch/crush accidents consist mostly of broken fingers when someone's hand gets caught in an operating winch or windlass, a falling hatch, or a closing door. Hauling/launching accidents tend to occur on the boat ramp when someone slips off the trailer while preparing the boat to launch or tidying up after hauling it out.

Chart 3: Causes Of Recreational Boating Accidents, 2013

Causes of recreational boating accidents chartSource: Coast Guard Boating Accident Report Database

According to the Coast Guard data for 2013 from the Boating Accident Report Database (Chart 3), more than half of recreational boating injuries (while underway) result from five primary causes: operator inattention, excessive speed, operator inexperience, improper lookout, and alcohol use. The first four are the same as in the Florida Boating Accidents Statistical Report for 2013. Note that all of these things are in the captain's control, and all of them fall into the category of being careful and being alert. They are part of that collection of attributes that together define seamanship, and good seamanship is the most effective way to reduce the chances of a collision or someone going overboard.

Table 3. Preventing Injuries Aboard

Runabout/PWC — Towing sports
Source: BoatUS Marine Insurance
Actions To Reduce Risk:
1. Always use a lookout; when someone falls, have the lookout point to the person to keep the operator continually aware of their location.
2. Instruct skiers to hold a ski out of the water after a fall to increase visibility.
3. Make sure guests and others new to towing sports know to release the tow line as soon as they fall.
4. Tow only in wide open areas and calm conditions; be aware of the radius of your tow.
Runabout/PWC — Wave/wake
Actions To Reduce Risk:
1. One hand for the boat, one hand for yourself.
2. Install a solid handhold within reach of every seating position.
3. Call "wave" or "wake" early to warn passengers to prepare themselves.
4. Brief guests on the need to stay seated while underway and what to do if "wave" is called.
Other power and sail — Spill and fall
Actions To Reduce Risk:
1. One hand for the boat, one hand for yourself.
2. Always wear proper footwear with good nonskid soles.
3. Test your nonskid deck by pouring saltwater on it and seeing if it is slippery; if so, revitalize it, or install nonskid tiles.
4. Add nonskid to hatches, ladders, the sole in the galley and the head, and other areas where passengers may be vulnerable.
5. Install handholds at all transition points — from cockpit to side deck, around the companionway, along the coach roof, etc.
6. Brief guests on the need to use handholds whenever moving around the boat.
Other power and sail — Embark/Debark
Actions To Reduce Risk:
1. One hand for your boat, one hand for yourself. (See a pattern here?)
2. Have a proper dock step the height of the side deck of the boat. Use the docklines to pull the boat into the dock and hold it steady while guests, children, and others who may need assistance are embarking/debarking.
3. Install proper gates in the lifelines of the boat.
4. Keep the dock and the deck of the boat free of clutter including dock lines, power cords, water-sports equipment, etc.

But seamanship extends beyond when the boat is underway and encompasses everything from briefing nonboating guests on navigating the companionway steps to always having one hand on a solid handhold when moving around the boat. It's a very small step from a slip-and-fall to an overboard situation; a very fine line separating a minor inconvenience from an irreversible tragedy. Being careful and being alert goes a long way toward keeping everyone aboard on the right side of that line. Table 3 offers some concrete suggestions, based on our claim files, for what to do to avoid injury. By being vigilant and treating the boat and the marine environment with the respect it deserves, we can make boating even safer. 

— Published: April 2015


Seaworthy, the damage-avoidance newsletter, is brought to you by the BoatUS Marine Insurance Program. For an insurance quote, please call 1-800-283-2883 or apply online at BoatUS.com.


To comment on this article, please contact Seaworthy@BoatUS.com



Boating Accident Data Sources

  • BoatUS Marine Insurance Program claim files. We analyzed all claims involving injuries and fatalities between January 1, 2009, and December 31, 2013.
  • Coast Guard Boating Accident Report Database (BARD). The Coast Guard collects information on all boating accidents that occur underway involving a death, missing person, personal injury, property damage (in excess of $2,000), or total vessel loss resulting from the vessel's operation, construction, seaworthiness, equipment, or machinery.
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Boating Accident Statistical Report. This annual report summarizes state boating accident information; reporting requirements are the same as for the Coast Guard.

 

The BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water is dedicated to promoting safe, clean, and responsible boating. More than 100,000 boaters will take the Foundation's free online boating safety course this year (which meets the requirements for boater education in 33 states). The Foundation's life jacket loaner program will help keep more than 10,000 children safe this year by lending them properly-sized life jackets for their outings on the water. To see more of what the Foundation does and how you can help, go to www.BoatUS.org