After car accidents, boating accidents account for the second-largest group of vehicular injuries in the United States. The U.S. Coast Guard is trying to fix that.
Thursday afternoon, I rode along on a Defender class response boat as Coast Guard officers patrolled the Delaware River. Their main duty is performing "courtesy checks," or pullovers, on recreational craft, but they are also on the lookout for drunk boating and other reckless behavior.
Petty Officer Charles Smith jokingly offers an example of such behavior: someone "jumping a tugboat's wake with his 8-year-old daughter on the bow." This is all part of the U.S. Coast Guard's Operation Dry Water, which just came to a close. The initiative, intended to reduce the number of accidents and deaths resulting from drunk boating, takes place every June.
Operation Dry Water is focused on enforcement and education. This means more patrol boats afloat during peak hours and a concerted media outreach effort. June is the target month, because it is the opening of the summer boating season, the time when most accidents occur, and because of the importance of cracking down on negligent behavior during the days leading up to July 4, the yearly peak of boating accidents.
The education portion of the initiative is accomplished primarily through media outreach.
Most of the day-to-day work of the patrol officers consists of the courtesy checks, which can be performed at any time on any non-governmental craft and involve little more than a boarding and safety inspection. Smith checked recreational craft for proper safety equipment, including flares and flotation devices, noting that the Coast Guard does not give verbal warnings. Any violation is an instant ticket. The people whose boats were checked, however, didn't appear to be anything more than mildly inconvenienced. They were prepared to be searched, knowing that boating near the Coast Guard station made it more likely.
To increase safety, Smith said, "A boating safety course needs to be mandatory. In my opinion, that is the only thing." While "most" boaters carry forms proving they've received safety instruction, an agency fact sheet reveals that this is true of only 11 percent of fatalities. In Pennsylvania, a Boating Safety Education Certificate is required only to operate a vehicle over 25 horsepower and only for people born in or after 1982.
Also worth keeping in mind: alcohol can have a more powerful effect on the water. Stressors like heat, motion, vibration, and the rolling of the waves can intensify the effect of alcohol, meaning that you may become inebriated at a lower blood alcohol level than normally. Alcohol can also decrease one's resistance to cold water and make it difficult to tell up from down while beneath the surface, raising the risk of drowning if an accident does occur.
it's important to remember to have enough life jackets for every passenger and to keep in mind that boating while inebriated not only increases the risk of an accident but also decreases the chances of survival.