Florida led the nation again in boating accidents, deaths and injuries, according to a U.S. Coast Guard survey of 2018 marine incidents.
The Sunshine State had 607 boat accidents last year, resulting in 57 deaths, 297 injuries and more than $7 million in property damage.
But fatal accidents fell to their lowest level in the state since 2015, the report notes. Florida also led the nation in the number of registered recreational boats.
The Coast Guard report was released just days before a dive boat fire in California killed more than two dozen people.
Preventing or surviving a boating accident takes preparation, says Anna Morris, the assistant education officer for the Tampa Bay chapter of the Power Squadron, a national boating safety club that offers courses and vessel safety inspections.
She and her husband, Scott, operate a twin cabin cruiser, and “we have probably more fire extinguishers than we will ever need,” she said. “But the reason for that is that a fire extinguisher only last for a few seconds. So once the fiberglass catches, the boat’s gone. All you're interested in is getting out.”
While collisions and falling overboard cause the most fatalities, fires at sea are deadly but preventable.
Florida had a fire-related boating fatality in January 2018, when the Island Lady casino cruise ship caught fire off Port Richey. Carrie Dempsey, a 42-year-old mother of two from Lutz, died after the flaming boat ran aground. An autopsy showed she died hours after she inhaled fumes from the blaze.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the vessel’s owners for not doing preventative maintenance and recommended stronger steps for the Coast Guard’s inspection of commercial vessels.
For recreational boaters, educating yourself and your boating guests about safety is key.
“One of the things that we always do when we take our boat out is we go through a full safety briefing as to this is going to be your life vest,” Morris said. “The cruise lines do very much the same thing. You have to have the safety briefing so that people know how to respond. We take our guests below deck and we show them where the fire extinguishers are.”
Other findings in the Coast Guard report include:
- Alcohol was a factor in 101 deaths nationally. “It is heartbreaking to realize that more than 100 people could still be alive today had alcohol use been curbed,” said Capt. Scott Johnson, chief of the Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety at Coast Guard Headquarters, in a news release.
- Training helps reduce the chance of accidents. The report said 74 percent of the accidents involved boat operators who had not taken a certified safety training course.
- Life jackets save lives. Three in four fatalities involved victims drowning. 84 percent were not wearing a life jacket.
“There's any number of things that could go wrong with them on a boat,” Morris said. “And the best course of action, of course, is prevention.”
To sign up for a safety course or have your boat inspected for free, go to Power Squadron’s website, www.tampaps.org.