This week’s Long Island Sound tragedy in which a yacht capsized, resulting in the drowning deaths of three children, is placing a much-needed focus on boating safety, and revealing some gaps in what it takes to operate a boat.
This Independence Day, like many prior on Long Island, included a large fireworks display in Oyster Bay, put on by Cablevision founder. It is not unusual for nearby boaters to anchor near the display for prime water views, said the Christian Science Monitor (CS Monitor), which is what the 34-foot Silverton, loaded with 27 passengers—many children and teens—was doing Wednesday evening before it tragically capsized.
An investigation has been implemented to determine what caused the vessel to sink. Theories include weather issues, boat overcrowding, the wake of another powerboat, or a mechanical malfunction, said the CS Monitor.
In the days following the horrible tragedy, information on boating deaths is coming to the surface, specifically, said the U.S. Coast Guard, that boating deaths are on the rise and mostly due to inattention, operator inexperience, and high speeds. All of these can lead to the key cause of boating deaths: Vessel capsize.
The CS Monitor noted that, in many boating accidents, most people are not wearing life jackets. Although the Coast Guard said it has considered regulatory action to mandate life jacket wear, it has not taken steps to implement such a move, said the CS Monitor. Of 758 boating fatalities in 2011, only 12 percent of those who died were wearing a life jacket, said the CS Monitor. In this week’s accident, according to one report, there were about six life jackets for the 27 on board.
The Coast Guard has also considered mandating boat operators attend and pass boating education classes; however, it has not received Congressional authority to do so, although many other states have this requirement in place. This means that there are no mandates in place for most people, of any age, to operate a boat in New York.
In New York, only people operating personal watercraft (PWCs include Jet Ski®, Sea Doo®, Wave Runner®, Tiger Shark®, and Wet Jet® and operators must be over the age of 14) and children 10 – 18 years of age who want to operate a mechanically propelled boat, other than a PWC, alone, must take a class, according to the American Boating Association.
The Coast Guard runs public-service announcements on the importance of wearing life jackets and not drinking while operating a boat. “Lately, we’ve been emphasizing that the operator of the vessel is responsible,” Phil Cappel of the Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division, told the CS Monitor. “That comes to question in [the Oyster Bay] situation.” Regardless, in 2011, boating deaths increased 12.8 percent. And, every year—except 2010—boating deaths have risen from the prior year since 2007. “We’ve been trying to move the needle [lower] and have not been successful,” Cappel said.
Some boating-safety experts question how safe it was to have 27 people on a 34-foot boat. “If I was driving that boat, I am not sure where to place those people to make it a safe situation,” John Adey, president of the American Boat and Yacht Council, which sets the standards for boat-design safety, told the CS Monitor. “I don’t think the boat was designed for that kind of live load. [Twenty-seven people] would have never come into anyone’s frame of reference.
The American Boating Association said that of the some 7,700 accidents reported annually, the U.S. Coast Guard found that nearly 70 percent are caused by operator error and estimates suggest less than 10 percent of minor boating accidents are reported. Incompetent boaters cause more accidents and cause more severe accidents, said the Association. Also, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), boating fatalities are second only to highway deaths. More than 80 percent of recreational boat operators involved in fatal boating accidents have never taking any type of boater education. “An untrained boater would likely not know the proper steps to take in a life-threatening situation, such as capsizing/man overboard, fire, sinking/flooding, or collision,” said the American Boating Association on its web site.
Approximately 12.7 million boats are registered in the U.S.