Texas officials alarmed at spike in boating fatalities

Boating accidents in Texas hit a 30-year high in 2020, as more boat owners took to the waves to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdowns and shutdowns.

Sales-wise, boat stores and marine manufacturers in the Rio Grande Valley say 2020 was the best year since 2008, with sales up 10-12 percent over 2019. National figures were about the same, with an estimated 310,000 new boats sold in 2021.

Among those new buyers were a large proportion of owners who were new to boats, which may have been a factor in 55 boating-related fatalities statewide in 2020, according to data released by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

“Fatalities on Texas waterways increased 45 percent in 2020 from 2019, while fatal accidents on the water rose by 61 percent,” TPWD officials said in a statement. “Overall, accidents on the water were up 67 percent, and injuries were up by 64 percent.”

“More than 70 percent of boating accidents that occurred in 2020 were on open motorboats or personal watercraft,” the statement read. “The months of May through August traditionally have the highest numbers of injuries and fatalities statewide, with weekends seeing the peak figures.”

Unfortunately, the numbers from 2021 show no slowing of the trend, with a 40-percent increase in open water-oriented fatalities, including boating and swimming accidents, in the months from January through April.

“Texas game wardens will be out in full force Memorial Day weekend to ensure the public enjoys their time on the water responsibly, however, we need boaters to ensure they are taking safety seriously, too,” said Cody Jones, assistant commander for marine enforcement at TPWD. “Most of the deaths and serious injuries that occurred in Texas waters last year were preventable by following a few simple, important steps — including using the safety ignition cut-off switch and wearing life jackets.”

Kimberly Sorenson, the TPWD’s boating education manager, stressed how vital it is to wear a life preserver while out on the water.

“According to Texas state law, a life jacket must be available for each occupant of a boat or paddle craft,” Sorenson said. “Children who are under the age of 13 are required to wear a life vest while on the boat or when the paddle craft is under way or drifting.”

In 2020, Texas game wardens issued 641 citations for children not wearing a life jacket, up 11 percent from the previous year. More than 1,800 citations were issued for insufficient life jackets onboard a watercraft, a 26-percent increase over 2019.

“Drowning is the highest reported cause of death in boating fatalities,” Sorensen said.  “Most victims are found not wearing a life jacket.”

“Simply stowing your life jacket on the boat is inadequate,” she added. “Accidents on the water can happen quickly, leaving insufficient time to put on a life jacket when most needed. For everyone’s safety, wear your life jacket and ensure others wear theirs at all times when on the water.”

Of the fatalities and accidents that occurred in the state in 2020, more than 60 percent of boat operators who were involved had not completed the mandatory boater safety course.

In order to operate a personal watercraft or a boat with a 15-horsepower rating or higher, anyone born on or after Sept. 1, 1993, must complete a boater education course.

Boaters can find a selection of online boater courses that can be taken any time on TPWD’s boater education web page. In-person courses also are available. Paddlers can also access a free paddling safety course online.

To brush up on state boating laws, go to the TPWD boating laws website. Check out the Life Jacket Association website for a guide to proper cleaning and storage of personal flotation devices.