Numbers don't lie. Coast Guard statistics reveal that accidents reached record levels during the pandemic. We look into the factors behind this deadly trend.
If you feel like you've been hearing about more boating mishaps on your local waters, it's not just regional. It's nationwide. "From July through August of 2020, it was the highest number of accidents for the 23 years that we have on record," reports Verne Gifford, the chief of Boating Safety at U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, who oversees the Coast Guard's annual report on recreational boating accidents. From 2019 to 2020, the total number of boating accidents increased by 26.3%, while deaths increased by 25.1%.
The number of deaths in 2021 remained above 2019 (prepandemic) levels. The 2021 annual report released in late June showed that there were 658 deaths, a 7% increase from 2019 [613 deaths], but a 14% decrease from 2020 [767 deaths].
What was it that made 2020 a boating season unlike any other? Was it just that there were more boaters on the water? Were these less experienced boaters? Most importantly, what can be done to reduce the number of accidents?
The Buying Surge
A primary factor behind the accident uptick correlates with a significant increase in boating activity, or what Gifford refers to as "exposure hours." Simply put, more people boating, and more frequently, leads to greater odds of a collision. With limited options during the pandemic, Americans headed to rivers, lakes, and saltwater. In those early days, boating offered the best socially distanced way to relax, make memories, and connect with nature.
Data from Info-Link Technologies, a market-research firm that tracks boat ownership statistics in the U.S., reveals sales of new fiberglass and aluminum powerboats increased by 13% in 2020, levels the recreational boating industry hadn't seen since before the Great Recession following the 2008 stock market crash. And sales remained strong in 2021, softening only slightly, which manufacturers attributed to supply chain constraints. Early indications are the two-year pandemic-fueled boating boom is waning in 2022, but the backlog remains, and manufacturers say they can't build boats fast enough.
"We had record boat sales everywhere," Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas (MRAA), says of the 2020 season. "Dealers sold everything they could get their hands on. Their showrooms were literally empty at times."
Another indicator that boating activity was picking up: BoatUS saw a 16% increase in memberships in both 2020 and 2021. The BoatUS Foundation also saw a jump in the number of students accessing its free online Boating Safety Course during that period. "We had a nearly 65% increase in total students accessing the course over 2019," says Amanda Perez, director of education, "more than 110,000 additional students than the year before."
More Inexperienced Boaters
It's long been understood that boating education plays a vital role in safety. In 77% of the accident cases involving a fatality recorded by the Coast Guard in 2020, the boat operator had no boating instruction or training. "We feel there's data that shows more new boat buyers and more inexperienced boaters during that period," says Gifford. "So we think that contributed to the fact that people were more likely to have accidents that resulted in damage, injuries, and, unfortunately, fatalities."
According to Info-Link Technologies, the percentage of powerboats purchased by first-time buyers jumped to 35% in 2020, dramatically reversing what had been a 10-year declining trend. Dealers noticed there were suddenly a lot of new boaters coming into their stores. Stories about customers who never boated before coming in to buy new boats 30 feet and larger is not unusual, Gruhn says. "I had a dealer tell me he'd had a customer come in who not only had never owned a boat, he'd never been in a boat," Gruhn says. "That's the type of stuff we were hearing about."
Captain Timothy Dunleavy of the New Hampshire State Police Marine Patrol saw plenty of evidence of new boaters on the water. "We saw an explosion in the number of people who were looking to become certified boaters," says Dunleavy. "Our law has been in effect since 2001, so at this point in New Hampshire, we're just certifying people who are new to boating or coming of age to be able to operate. Typical numbers run from 6,000 to 8,000 a year. We saw over 30,000."
Dunleavy also noticed a change in the interactions that officers were having with people on the water. "We see inexperienced operators getting in trouble, not being as familiar with the hazards on our lakes ... violating routine navigation laws ... people were lost, didn't know where they were, needed directions. Those are all signs of an inexperienced boater," says Dunleavy.
Same-Old Safety Measures
Regardless of statistics, the experts we interviewed stressed the keys to staying safe on the water remain the same:
- Take boating education courses. The more the better.
- Wear a life jacket, and the skipper should wear an engine cutoff switch.
- Avoid distracted driving.
- Do not boat under the influence.
- Read and know the rules for the waters in which you're boating.
Record Rental Accidents
Many would-be boat owners' hopes were dashed when they got to the dealership. A combination of demand and restricted supply chains meant that in some cases there was nothing left to buy. For many, the easiest option was to rent.
While overall boating deaths increased by 25% in 2020 to 767, there was a 98% increase in deaths involving rental vessels. And in 2021, that number jumped another 15% percent. This is likely due to the increasing popularity of boat rental companies and services.
"We've never had such a significant jump," says Gifford. The Coast Guard believes that both the increased activity on rental vessels and less experienced boaters using rental vessels played a role in the spike, Gifford says, adding, "We do know that education matters."
For perspective, rentals have grown in recent years along with the owner rental model pioneered by Airbnb. But the 2020 spike stands as an outlier compared to previous rental deaths of 41 (2019), 52 (2018), 49 (2017), and 67 (2016).
Become A Better Boater
Whether you're new to boating or looking to expand your skills, our BoatUS Foundation offers courses and online resources for safe and clean boating:
- Free boating safety course. The BoatUS Foundation offers the only free online boating safety course developed specifically for your state. They're recognized by the Coast Guard and approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) and 36 states. Go to BoatUS.org/Free and click on your state to get started.
- Advanced courses. Want to brush up or learn a new skill? Our BoatUS Foundation offers 16 courses on various topics, including marine radios, navigation, weather, hurricane prep, sailing, and more. Prices range from free to $40 each.
- In-person learning. If you'd prefer to learn in-person, the BoatUS Foundation has a database of U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons, and privately offered courses from around the country. Visit BoatUS.org/Courseline and type in your zip code to find courses in your area.
- Hands-on on-water training. Our BoatUS Foundation offers On-Water Training through partners around the country. The three-hour courses range from $179 to $249 depending on location, are taught by Coast Guard-licensed captains, and have three to four students so everyone gets ample time at the helm. Enter your zip code at BoatUS.org/On-Water to find training near you.
In preparation for 2022, Dunleavy says his team analyzed where demands have been highest over the last couple of years to "focus our manpower on those lakes or areas of lakes, on the large ones where the boaters need us."
They're also continuing to work to engage boaters through social media and outreach campaigns and increasing the number of boating courses offered in the New Hampshire State Police Marine Patrol's jurisdiction.
Gruhn anticipated another busy season. "People have fallen in love with being on the water again," he said. "They've turned to the water in record numbers, and we expect that to continue, particularly in a world where there's a lot of stressors. There's no better escape than being on the water with your family and friends."