Lessons Learned – by Pat Carson

Lessons Learned

Recreational Boating Safety 2020

The United States Coast Guard has released its Recreational Boating Statistics report for 2020, and the data is not good. The report is based off of incidents that resulted in at least one of the following criteria: death, disappearance or injury that required medical treatment beyond first aid, damages to the vessels or other property that equaled or exceeded $2,000 or loss of a vessel.

So that you do not have to read the 100 or so pages of government data, charts and graphs, I have taken the liberty to do it for you. The report reveals that there were 767 boating fatalities nationwide in 2020, a 25.1 percent increase from 2019. Here in California, accidents were also up from 324 in 2019 to 493 in 2020. The number of boating fatalities in California was 39 in 2020, the same as 2019.

Deaths, injuries and accidents from 2001 to 2020. In 2020 there was a significant increase in all areas over 2019 and the highest in 10 years.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety compile statistics on reported recreational boating accidents. These statistics are derived from reports filed by the owners and operators of recreational vessels involved in accidents. This report contains statistics on registered recreational vessels and boating accidents during calendar year 2020. Registered vessels include airboats, auxiliary sailboats, cabin motorboats, canoes, houseboats, inflatable boats, kayaks, open motorboats, personal watercraft, pontoon boats, rafts, rowboats, sailboats and standup paddleboards. Data used to compile the recreational boating accident statistics comes from four main sources: state marine agencies, federal agencies (including the Coast Guard, National Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Forest Service), the public on a CG-3865 Recreational Boating Accident Report form and the news media. The U.S. Coast Guard collects data from all states and territories that have federally approved boat numbering and casualty reporting systems. These include all states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

From 2019 to 2020, the total number of accidents increased by 26.3 percent, from 4,168 to 5,265, and the number of non-fatally injured victims increased by 24.7 percent, from 2,559 to 3,191. There is evidence that boating activity increased significantly during the pandemic from reports of increased boat sales, insurance policies taken out, insurance claims and calls for towing assistance. With increased activity, there was a greater risk of deaths, injuries and accidents. One thing we do know is that alcohol continued to be the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents in 2020, accounting for over 100 deaths or 18 percent of total fatalities.

Riding on the bow of a boat with your feet dangling in the water with no personal flotation device is not only unsafe, but in California it is illegal. Photo courtesy of Captain Hardin.


A summary of the report also shows that in 2020:

  • The fatality rate was 6.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels, the highest in the last 20 years. This rate represents a 25 percent increase from last year’s fatality rate of 5.2 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels.
  • Property damage totaled about $62.5 million.
  • Operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed and machinery failure ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.

Where the cause of death was known, 75 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 86 percent were not wearing a life jacket and 80 percent were on vessels less than 21-feet in length. Where boating instruction was known, 77 percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had not received boating safety instruction. Where vessel type was known, the vessel types with the highest percentage of deaths were open motorboats (50 percent), kayaks (15 percent) and pontoon boats (9 percent).

The Coast Guard recommends that all boaters take a boating safety course that meets the National Boating Education Standards prior to getting out on the water. It is crucial to wear a life jacket at all times when boating because it very likely will save your life if you enter the water unexpectedly. Boaters are reminded to make sure that life jackets are serviceable, properly sized and correctly fastened.

Distribution of 2020 recreational vessel registration by state. This figure provides the percentage that each state contributed to national registration figures. For example, California registered 645,951 vessels. Out of the total national registration of 11,838,188, California contributed 5.5% of registered vessels.

Today, recreational boating (relatively speaking) is one of the safest means of recreation in the U.S., and continues to get safer. In 1960 there were 819 boating related fatalities, and this increased to a peak of 1,754 in 1974. In 2016 there were 4,463 accidents reported to the USCG that involved 2,903 injuries and 701 deaths. The fatality rate has decreased from 33.4% per 100,000 registered boats in 1960 to a low of 5.2% per 100,000 registered boats in 2019. This is a substantial improvement for several reasons:

  1. The USCG developed standards related to vessel capacity, safe loading, safe powering, flotation, electrical, fuel and ventilation.
  2. In the 1980’s, individual states and the USCG enacted intoxicated boating laws and enforcement techniques to reduce impaired boating.
  3. Many states began mandatory boating education that required boat operators to pass a safe boating course.
  4. States enacted mandatory life jacket requirements for certain boat types and for children of certain ages.

Although the fatality rate nationally is 6.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels, California was 5.1 percent which is low and down significantly from the high in 2017 of 8.1 percent. Perhaps we can credit the state mandated boater education, as 61 percent of fatal accidents involve persons between 26 and 55 years old, and mandatory education is just now starting to impact this group.

The most common vessel types involved in reported accidents were open motorboats (36 percent), personal watercraft (18.3 percent), cabin motorboats (6.3 percent), pontoon boats (5.7 percent) and canoe/kayaks (5.2 percent). Vessel types with the highest percentage of deaths were open motorboats (49 percent), canoe/kayaks (20 percent) and personal watercraft (6.1 percent).

Recreational vessel registrations by year from 1996 to 2020. Registered vessels are those vessels that are required to be recorded by a state, which includes numbered vessels and other forms of registration. Not all states have the same registration requirements. While some states may only register vessels with a motor, others may register sailboats, canoes, kayaks and rowboats in addition to those with a motor.

The top five accident types in 2020 were collision with another vessel, flooding, allision with a fixed object, grounding and falls overboard. The top contributing factors were operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed and alcohol use. Take note that all of these primary and secondary causes are human factors and not machinery or environment. In fact, nationally, most accidents occurred in protected waters (89 percent), on calm days with winds less than 12 kts (87 percent) and in daylight with good visibility (76 percent).

How does California stack up? In 2020 there were 493 accidents, up from 324 in 2019, 311 reported injuries up from 236, and 39 fatalities the same as 2019. Interesting to also note that 56 percent of the reported boating accidents occurred in the months of June, July and August, 68 percent occurred on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and 70 percent occurred between 1230 and 2030.

Behind The Numbers

Accident reporting is required by federal law under federal regulations. The operator of any numbered vessel that was not required to be inspected, or a vessel that was operated for recreational purposes is required to file a Boating Accident Report when, as a result of an occurrence that involves the vessel or its equipment:

  1. A person dies
  2. A person disappears from the vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury
  3. A person is injured and requires medical treatment beyond first aid
  4. Damage to vessels and other property totals $2,000 or more
  5. There is a complete loss of any vessel.

If any of the above conditions are met, the federal regulations state that the operator or owner must report their accident to a state reporting authority. The reporting authority can be either the state where the accident occurred, the state in which the vessel was registered or, if the vessel does not have a registration number, the state where the vessel was principally used. The owner must submit the report if the operator is deceased or unable to make the report. The regulations also state the acceptable length of time in which the accident report must be submitted to the reporting authority. Boat operators or owners must submit:

  1. Accident reports within 48 hours of an occurrence if a person dies within 24 hours of the occurrence, a person requires medical treatment beyond first aid or a person disappears from the vessel.
  2. Accident reports within 10 days of an occurrence if there is damage to the vessel/property only. The minimum reporting requirements are set by federal regulation, but states are allowed to have more stringent requirements. For example, some states have a lower threshold for reporting damage, such as California where damage over $500 requires submission of a report.

Federal regulations require accident report data to be forwarded to Coast Guard Headquarters within 30 days of receipt by a state or its agent.

California boating accident statistics are compiled under state law, requiring a boater who is involved in an accident to file a written accident report with the Division of Boating and Waterways in the case of:

  1. A person dies
  2. A person disappears from the vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury
  3. A person is injured and requires medical treatment beyond first aid
  4. Damage to vessels and other property that totals $500 or more
  5. There is a complete loss of the vessel regardless of value

Reports are required to be submitted to the Department of Boating and Waterways within 48 hours of an accident that involves the disappearance of a person or injury beyond first aid, and within 24 hours of any accident that results in death. The owner or operator has 10 days to submit a report for any accident that results in property damage, complete loss of a vessel or death that occurs more than 24 hours after the accident.

Even though the kids have on life jackets as required by California law, riding on the transom is unsafe and potentially dangerous. Carbon monoxide from the engines is a silent killer. Photo courtesy of Captain Hardin.

Data on fatal accidents is considered accurate, however data for non-fatal accidents has a much lower confidence level. Non-fatal accidents are severely underreported as boaters are either unaware of reporting requirements, or are unwilling to report. A 2006 study “Recent Research on Recreational Boating Accidents and the Contribution of Boating Under the Influence” suggested that 20 percent of hospital admitted injuries were not captured, and upwards of 93 percent of non-fatal, non-hospital admitted injuries were not reported as required by federal and California law. It does not take much more than a deep scratch in the gel coat or a little bend in a stainless-steel rail to reach the California $500 threshold for accident reporting.


Currently, 45 of the 50 states have some form of mandatory boating education requirements. But not all vessel operators are required to complete an approved course because they were born before a specific date. At present, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Boating Safety estimates that less than 28% of boat operators were subject to some form of boat operator education requirements.

California’s mandatory boater education program began on Jan. 1, 2018. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact this requirement will have once all boat operators are required to have education in 2025. A wildcard is the boat operators that are exempt from California education such as persons operating a rental vessel, an operator that is not a resident of California (and has met their home state requirements if any) and a person who is a resident of another country (and meets the boat operator requirements of their home country if any.) However, in the end nearly every operator that completes the course is a much more informed and competent boater.

What can we all do to promote safe boating? First, let us determine what unsafe boat operation is. Such behaviors as boating while intoxicated, not wearing a personal flotation device, operating your vessel at a high speed in “no wake” zones, crowded waterways, in restricted visibility, near fixed objects at or near persons in the water are all deemed unsafe.

Not being familiar with, or understanding the navigation rules, not keeping a proper lookout, and being unfamiliar with your particular vessel’s handling characteristics all contribute to unsafe operation. What are the two things we can all do to immediately lower the boating accident rates – wear your personal flotation device and reduce the use of alcohol while operating a vessel. A recent maritime operations accident analysis reports that 71 percent of human errors were situational awareness related problems. High stress situations can cause distraction or fixation. Physical or mental fatigue affects alertness, and the desire to get home creates excessive motivation.

Do not become a statistic, boat safe.

Time for me to sit back, enjoy a good glass of port and light up a fine cigar. Until next month, please keep those letters coming. Have a good story to tell, send me an email at patcarson@yachtsmanmagazine.com. I love a good story.