Dark grey clouds descended over the horizon bringing a stampede of torrential rain as the cracking booms of thunder echoed across the sky. Only a few minutes earlier the blue sky and bright sun was the scene of a fun family afternoon on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. With the wind and white capped waves whipping the small vessel, the mom, dad and small children clung to each other praying they would safely make it back to the marina.
The scene described above is neither fictional nor uncommon. Boating is one of the most popular family recreational activities here in Florida’s Tampa Bay area and as the lightning capital of the world, the weather can go from tranquil to treacherous in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, the lack of proper precautions and awareness of the dangers can make a family day of boating end tragically, including the loss of life.
2020 was a record year for boat purchases in the State of Florida. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 2020 Boating Accident Statistical Report, there are nearly one million registered vessels in 2020 at more than 985,000. This is an increase of nearly 24,000 more than the previous year and more than 50,000 since 2016. While these numbers reflect the increased popularity of boating, they do not account for the estimated one million unregistered vessels that are actively on Florida’s waterways. Unfortunately, boating fatalities have increased 16% over 2019, representing the highest increase since 2011.
Florida requires a boating license and completed boating safety course only for those operators born after January 1, 1988. While this law has reduced boating accidents, nearly 44% of accidents in 2020 involved boats operated by persons age 36 or older. The more alarming statistic shows that of the boating accidents resulting in a fatality, 69% of operators had no formal safe boating training.
In our ongoing mission to obtain justice for the citizens and families of Florida, the lawyers at Perenich Law have witnessed horrific injury and death owing to the negligence of boating operators who were never trained in safety or failed to recognize the dangers of boating. We have represented families who have suffered injury or death because of drowning, boat propeller injuries and boating collisions.
From this experience, we have taken on the corollary mission of promoting safety, including the Tampa Bay area waters. So as we set off for a summer of sun, fun and family celebrations, we provide these safety tips for our boating community.
Take a boating safety course. While only operators born after January 1, 1988 are required to take such a course, the best way to survive unsafe situations is to know how to avoid them. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides a directory of local and online courses that one can take to be trained in boating safety at www.myfwc.com/boating/safety-education/courses . Because as with all things, we don’t know what we don’t know.
Always wear life jackets on a boat. Most drowning tragedies occur because the victim thinks he or she is an accomplished swimmer. However, some circumstances arise when fatigue or injury interferes with a swimmer’s ability to stay afloat. Like the sudden weather event described above, a storm can capsize a boat or knock someone off a boat into rough waters where swimming skills don’t matter. A life jacket is the best solution.
Never let swimmers near a boat propeller. A typical recreational boat propeller can travel from head to toe on an average person in less than one-tenth of a second. The vast majority of boat propeller accidents result in death. Never swim near a boat propeller unless the engine has been turned off and the operator knows where you are. Never put a boat in reverse to retrieve a swimmer or man overboard. Account for all passengers before starting the engine. More safety tips on propeller safety can be found at www.uscgboating.org.
Engine Cut-Off Switch. As of April 1, 2021, Florida law requires every boat be equipped with an engine cut off switch that is connected, either physically or wirelessly with the boat operator. If the operator moves away from the helm, either because of an accident or because of his or her own neglect, the engine will cut off. This will save lives.
Personal Locator Beacon. A PLB is a device of satellite technology that has been developed to alert response agencies if you are in trouble – even if you are far out of cell tower coverage. The small wearable device can be manually activated or can be one that goes off automatically if it is submerged in water. This is a critical piece of equipment for anyone who is operating a vessel for deep sea (gulf) water fishing.
The lawyers and team members at Perenich Law love living in this community of sun, sea and sand and in fact, many of us are boaters of varying degrees of experience. We want boating to be fun and safe for everybody. By following the above precautions, we can look forward to a happy and safe summer.
Terence A. Perenich, Esquire