Anatomy of a Boating Accident

You and a few buddies get together for a day of fishing on a local lake. It is a beautiful morning and you motor out to your favorite spot, drop the anchor and bait your hooks. As the morning dwindles on, the fishing is not that great but hey, you’re fishing with friends so how bad can it be?

What is concerning you is the steady build up of clouds throughout the morning. By early afternoon they look like they are threatening rain. One cloud in particular seems to be pretty dark and is getting closer. When it looks like getting wet is imminent, you all decide that it might be best to head back to the dock and wait it out. The dock is about two miles away so you clean up, start the engine and start on your way.

Five minutes after you start for the dock, the wind starts to pick up. The storm that was in the distance a few minutes ago looks like it’s picking up speed and its heading right at you. The lake which has been dead calm all morning is now in about 2 foot waves and windy conditions. The thought of heading for shore, any shore, occurs to you but you are in the middle of the lake and there won’t be any shelter there if you do. Plus, you can see the dock off in the distance. You decide to open the engine up to full throttle, motor on and get there as fast as you can, the boat beating its way through heavy waves.

Then it happens. The storm begins to bare down on you with its full force. It hasn’t begun to rain except for a few drops but the wind is incredible. The waves have increased to three to four feet and you are starting to have difficulty managing the boat. Perhaps it would be best to be near the shore, so you start to guide the boat toward the nearest point of land. You begin to steer in that direction while still trying to hit the waves as direct as you can to prevent rolling over. You’re not sure what happened next but you remember cresting a big wave and as the bow of the boat came down it was if an invisible hand picked it up again and flipped the little craft of its back. The next thing you knew, you were surrounded by water trying desperately to find something to hang on to and keep your head above water. Shock quickly turns to panic. As you rise with one of the waves you catch sight of the boat about ten feet away. You begin to start to swim toward it but the heavy waves and water logged clothes thwart your every move. Finally you are able to grasp a rope attached to the bow and you pull yourself to the boat. You’re now tired and cold but somewhat safe for the moment as you’re able to use the rope and a hand hold to latch yourself to the capsized boat.

Your thoughts immediately turn to your companions. There is no way that you can search for them in these conditions and you realize that all you can do for the moment is keep a lookout for them and say a prayer for their safety. It’s then that you become aware of a muffled voice and you realize it is one of your friends calling out to you and your other friend. You look around and yell back but can’t tell how far away he is or in which direction. After a minute or two you realize that his voice is coming from under the boat. You take a quick moment to tie the rope around your arm so that you won’t lose it and dive under the waves to try and find the source of the voice. When you surface under the boat it’s completely dark but you manage to grab a hold of one of the seats to keep yourself in the trapped air pocket. You call out to your friend and are flushed with relief as you are able to talk with him.

He says he’s hurt. His arm is numb and he thinks he might be bleeding but for now he has a firm hold of the boat and feels safe for the moment. There is no way that you can tell anything in the darkness but he does sound ok. He hasn’t seen or heard your other friend. You both decide that this is the safest place to ride out the storm and once it settles down a bit you can look for him and do something about getting help. You are worried but there is little that you can do under the following conditions. Your buddy suggests maintaining a call out for him in case he is near by and can hear you. You take turns calling out his name only to be answered by sound of wind and water beating against the overturned hull of the boat.

After what seems like an eternity, you sense that the waves are subsiding and the sound of the wind is lessening. You discuss the possibility of going above but your buddy is not sure he can and is afraid to let go with the use of only one arm. In addition, you realize that the rope you tied onto your arm has come untied and is no longer available. You decide to stay put for the moment and try to come up with a plan. The storm definitely seems to be subsiding but you can hear the sound of rain. After a few minutes you faintly make out the sound of a motor and voices. Perhaps help has arrived. You tell your friend to stay put and decide to go topside to see.

When you surface you see a boat a couple of hundred yards away. To your surprise the waves and wind have calmed considerably but it is raining. With one hand holding on to the boat, you wave at your approaching rescuers and feel a surge of hope and relief. You tell them of your friends, one below, one unaccounted for. They insist on bringing you onboard when you say that you are going back to tell your friend that you have been rescued. It’s the best decision to make as you see one of the rescuers jump into the water to help you and your friend. He slips under the capsized boat and what seems like an eternity, finally emerges with your friend in tow. When they board you see a large gash on his arm and he is bleeding. As they begin to administer first aid they begin asking questions of your missing friend. You tell them everything you know and recanting the details renews a sense of worry.

To make a long story short, they did find your friend. Emergency service divers pulled his body out of the water the next day. When you were informed a million thoughts go through your head followed by a deep sense of grief. Why did this happen? Why didn’t you immediately go for shore? Did you even look at the weather? Why didn’t you and your friends wear their life jackets? What could or would you have done differently to prevent this? It’s all so meaningless. Even if there were answers to these questions the best it would do is prevent a future incident, it wouldn’t change what has happened. The only thing that you know for sure is that you have to bury a good friend and face his wife and two young daughters when you do.

It’s a tragic story but according to a recent report it is typical of drowning death in Canada. In a joint study by the Red Cross and Transport Canada where water death data has been compiled and analyzed over the past 18 years, approximately 85% of water fatalities occur during recreational activities. By far the leading activity people were involved with at the time was fishing, accounting for 37% of all water deaths. Powerboating runs second at 21% and canoeing a distant third at 14%. 35% of boats involved were powered under 5.5 meters (18 feet) and 22% being canoes. Clearly, the size of the craft has an impact on safety however this result may be skewed by the number of small watercraft involved in recreational activities.

Other interesting facts include; approximately 2/3’s of deaths involved powered watercraft with 39% of them involving incidents where vessels have capsized. It makes sense then that 23% of deaths are attributed to large waves and a further 19% to strong winds, the combination making up over 40%. Since these conditions are primarily associated with thunderstorm activity which is predominant in the summer, it suggests a correlation between sudden inclement weather and boating risk.

Of course it’s not just drowning that account for water deaths. Getting out of the water can be a great deal more difficult than getting into it. On average 1 in 4 deaths occur where people have fallen overboard in non-capsized incidents. Canadian lake waters are typically cold even in the height of our short summer and given that 60% of fatalities occur in lakes, a significant number can be accounted for due to hypothermia.

The report does highlight the effect of not wearing a personal flotation device (pfd). Only 12% of deaths occurred with people who were wearing a properly worn PFD. Since that is inclusive of all other factors, it speaks to its importance. One has to wonder how much smaller the fatality numbers would be if people just took the time to wear one.

Alcohol consumption, as one would expect, is cited as a significant factor as well. 26% of deaths can be credited to people who have had a blood alcohol content above the legal limit. A whopping 46% of people had or were suspected of having some level of alcohol in their system. Attribute it to summer and the nature of recreational activities but given that just under 1/2 of all deaths have alcohol as a factor, it rightly should raise a few eyebrows.

Age and sex also play a role. 93% of all casualties are male. Children under the age of 15 make up only 15%. One notable spike is in the 15 – 24 age group where the death rate is twice that in unpowered boats compared to powered. When combining the two, the numbers are fairly evenly distributed between the ages of 15 to 54.

It is easy to look into the numbers and forget that each one of them was a person who will be dearly missed by friends and family. So what can one do? There are the obvious steps you can take like not drinking when you boat and wearing your lifejacket. That should go without saying but beyond that the answer really lies in being aware and prepared for adversity. Take a few minutes to read through the report and analyze the facts for yourself. Know the hazards and what can be done to manage them. This is where training can be an investment that pays huge dividends. Courses like our own Boating Course, Seamanship or Fundamentals of Weather can provide you with the knowledge and skills you need to keep yourself and those around you safe this summer.

We can predict that around 500 people are going to lose their lives in the Canadian waters in 2012, most of them in the summer. Make sure that you or those around you are not one of them. Educate yourself, make boating safety a priority, take time to recognize the hazards and be sure that you have the proper equipment and attire when you head out this year.

Be safe and have a great time. See you out there.

Written by Neil Gagne


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