State boat­ing deaths down slightly af­ter a deadly 2015

Of­fi­cials say life jack­ets re­main the key pre­cau­tion

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Jonathan Pitts jonathan.pitts@balt­sun.com

With the sum­mer boat­ing sea­son now over, a dozen peo­ple have died in state wa­ters, of­fi­cials said.

That was slightly off the pace of 2015, when the 12-month to­tal of 21 deaths was the most in two decades.

It’s hard to iden­tify the cause of last year’s spike or this year’s mod­est drop-off, says Candy Thom­son, a spokes­woman for the Mary­land Nat­u­ral Resources Po­lice.

But it’s not dif­fi­cult to no­tice a com­mon thread in the tragedies.

The vast ma­jor­ity of the vic­tims — 18 of last year’s, and all of this year’s — weren’t wear­ing life jack­ets.

That mis­take, Thom­son says, can ren­der all other con­di­tions ir­rel­e­vant.

“There are so many fac­tors in­volved in this,” she said. “If gas prices are low, more peo­ple are out boat­ing, which means a like­li­hood of more prob­lems. Same thing if the weather’s good. But we do know that peo­ple are their own best life­guards. We push [safety] as hard as we can, but we can’t be ev­ery­where. Wear a life jacket.”

Of­fi­cials said it’s hard to find a de­fin­i­tive ex­pla­na­tion for last year’s uptick in fa­tal­i­ties. The weather was bet­ter than av­er­age for boat­ing over­all, but the death toll ap­peared to jump off the curve.

On av­er­age, 13 boaters die in Mary­land each year.

At state De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Resources head­quar­ters in An­napo­lis, the sheer num­bers last year — 125 peo­ple were in­jured in 146 in­ci­dents — proved hard to di­gest.

“Last year was a shocker for us,” Thom­son said. “Ev­ery time we thought, ‘We’re past this,’ they just kept com­ing. No mat­ter what we said, it didn’t seem to make a dif­fer­ence.”

The de­part­ment set out to bol­ster safety mea­sures for 2016, in­creas­ing safety pa­trols, im­ple­ment­ing more ed­u­ca­tional out­reach pro­grams, of­fer­ing free safety checks and part­ner­ing with the Coast Guard and lo­cal fire de­part­ments.

With four months left in this cal­en­dar year — boaters rou­tinely take to the wa­ter through late Oc­to­ber — it’s im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict where the fig­ures will go. But more boat­ing ac­ci­dents oc­cur in July and Au­gust than in any other months, Thom­son said, which means there’s a rea­son­able chance of a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in fa­tal­i­ties from last year.

Even if there’s a re­duc­tion, it’s hard to make de­fin­i­tive state­ments about it, other than to say the added safety mea­sures didn’t hurt. And as al­ways, boaters should wear life jack­ets.

State law re­quires life jack­ets for chil­dren, but not for in­di­vid­u­als over 16. Most wear them, Thom­son says. But many boaters — even ex­pe­ri­enced ones — have a false sense of se­cu­rity that can prove deadly in a mat­ter of mo­ments.

In many cases this year, help was on the way, or peo­ple could see the vic­tims from shore as they strug­gled in the wa­ter.

In Jan­uary, two 23-year-old duck hunters from Glen Burnie were a few hun­dred feet from shore on the Sev­ern River when 35-mph gusts cap­sized their 14-foot boat. Due to treach­er­ous con­di­tions, a res­cue ef­fort quickly be­came a re­cov­ery op­er­a­tion.

In June, an Edge­wa­ter man drowned in the South River while try­ing to re­cover a hat. In July, a Falls Church, Va., man drowned in the Po­tomac River af­ter jump­ing in for a fallen fish­ing rod.

Thom­son said it’s pos­si­ble the men were tired or even had med­i­cal emer­gen­cies. Lack­ing life jack­ets, they had lit­tle time to save them­selves.

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