Number of boaters means more fun and more danger

THE ISSUE: Boating season

OUR VIEW: S.C.’s total of vessels and people using them grows larger; safety emphasis cannot be too much

Any discussion of the “good old days” cannot be a reference to the reality of boating in South Carolina. In 1973, the state had 128,000 boats. That year, the state’s waters were deadly. Sixty-four people lost their lives in boating accidents.

To put that in perspective, 2008 is considered traumatic among recent years on the state’s waters. Twenty-nine people were killed in 140 reported accidents. After falling to 11 deaths in 96 accidents in 2009, the death toll spiked again in 2010 at 26 in 107 accidents. Last year was better: 98 accidents, but still 19 deaths.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources attributes the decline in deaths and accidents over the years to better law enforcement, better laws and education of boaters about the dangers on the water and proper operation of vessels. Even with less personnel on the water in the wake of recent years of state budget cuts, DNR and its allies in other law enforcement agencies make a difference with enforcement and regular efforts to educate boaters.

Safety inspections conducted at landings around the state over holiday weekends such as Memorial Day are part of their work. DNR officers will be at two Lake Marion landings Saturday and Sunday mornings: Alex Harvin and Low Falls from 10 a.m to noon both days.

They will perform inspections for items such as required safety equipment and proper boat and motor registration. Those who are not in compliance will not be ticketed during the complimentary inspections. Boaters will be given an opportunity to correct the problem before they launch their vessels.

Before considering the inspections as just a hassle that may get in the way of fun on the water, remember the accident numbers and the death toll. And be aware that accidents don’t  just happen elsewhere. There’s a reason Lake Marion is one of the places where inspections are taking place.

The lake has had three boating-related deaths in two years: two in 2010 and one in 2011. Ten other people suffered injuries in a total of 10 reported accidents over the 24 months.

The courtesy boat inspections correspond to National Safe Boating Week, which concluded Friday. The campaign reminds boaters to practice safe and responsible boating.

The Memorial Day holiday weekend is considered the first blast of summer and one of the busiest weekends of the year on the water. In 1973, no one could have imagined just how busy the waters would be in 2012. The 450,000 recreational motorboats currently registered in South Carolina are nearly four times as many watercraft as 40 years ago.

And there is reason to believe the numbers will increase.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association announced that in 2011, U.S. retail sales for recreational boats, accessories and marine services increased 6 percent to $32.3 billion, and new power and sailboat retail sales increased 0.8 percent to 214,405. The recreational boating industry has not seen an increase in retail sales since 2006.

Staggering, however, are the numbers in terms of people. NMMA says boating participation increased 10 percent in 2011 to 83 million people. The jump in participation is the largest proportion of adults (34.8 percent) who went boating since 1997, when 35.8 percent participated.

The statistics also reflect the importance of efforts to promote safety on all waters. Numbers from NMMA show the recreational boating industry continues to be predominantly comprised of small boats, which includes the aluminum power boat segment. Boating accidents are not the stories of big vessels on big waters.

Ninety-five percent of the 12.4 million registered boats in the country in 2011 were 26 feet or less in size. Boats less than 26 feet are most often taken by trailer to local bodies of water, in contrast to boats that are 26 feet in length and larger and typically docked at marinas. The size of the boats Americans purchase is relative to boater income: 83 percent of all boat owners in 2011 had an annual household income less than $100,000.

So what is the best way to be part of the growing numbers having fun on the water and be safe in the process?

According to a National Association of Boating Law Administrators report, total fatalities in 2010 dropped to 672, the lowest number on record. Its study also found that almost 75 percent of all fatal boating accident victims drowned, and of those, 88 percent were not wearing a life jacket. There were 3,153 injuries and approximately $35.5 million in property damage in 2010 as a result of recreational boating. Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and alcohol use rank as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.

It may not be “the thing,” but having adults, as well as children, wear life jackets while boating is the single best practice for preventing deaths on the water. Wearing the vests is not required on all vessels, and making a decision on their use in many instances in voluntary. Some will choose wisely. Many won’t. Regardless, all caution is required when boating.

For a copy of South Carolina’s boating regulations, visit the DNR website at And don’t hesitate to report boating violations such as reckless operation or an intoxicated boat operator. Call DNR’s toll-free 24-hour hotline at 1-800-922-5431.

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